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Culture

James Chimbidis Cultural Bearer

October 21, 2022

One sure sign of old age is hearing about a person’s death long after it happened. Perhaps this is due to growing isolation as one ages. You just, somehow, gradually lose touch with people. As a case in point, I just recently learned that James Chimbidis passed away on Friday, May 11, 2018. Chimbidis was a cultural bearer for both Greeks and Americans. A ‘cultural bearer’ is a term and concept that comes out of anthropological studies. These few, select persons, are collectively identified as “any individual…who carries, and thus diffuses, cultural values and traits between societies. The role of culture bearers is particularly important within those cultures undergoing transition or experiencing threat from outside the culture.”

Over the course of nearly sixty years, James Chimbidis through the mediums of documentary films, television, radio programs, lectures, and the printed word sought to expand and enhance the world-view of his various audiences.

In point of fact, Chimbidis belongs in an extremely select group of Greek-Americans who have all somehow disappeared not simply from the public scene but – it seems to me – our collective memory as well.

I can think, just in my own lifetime, of individuals such as Constance Callinicos, Fotios Litsas, Leon Marinakos, Eva Katafygio Topping, Peter Poulos, Theodora Vasils, Mary Vouras, and so many others who could be counted upon to serve as hosts and/or lecturers at innumerable cultural events and public programs.

As things stand, for future generations of Greeks, being able to trace such diligent individuals will not be easy. Paradoxically, while during their lifetimes, these select individuals made every effort to document the actions and lives of notable Hellenes while also seeking to make those persons more widely known to Greek as well as American audiences – curiously they are themselves often now forgotten figures. Incredibly, given their tireless efforts, their collective endeavors over a lifetime are somehow, now, simply lost in time. Greek-American communities around the country are losing more and more of their own cultural bearers. Never parochial, these individuals were ever-wide ranging in their work with a life-long tendency to circle back to themes surrounding Greek history and culture in the broadest terms.

This all too brief account is meant to showcase and honor one of these life-long champions of public life.

James Chimbidis, was born on June 6, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois to Greek immigrant parents Nicolas and Panayiota (Nickolou) Chimbidis. The Chimbidis couple had two other sons, Michael and Leonidas. Around the age of six, Jim moved with his family to 628 South Van Buren Avenue in Mason City, Iowa. In a speech to the Mason City High School Class of 1947, Chimbidis recalled that, “Mason City’s oldest industry, the manufacture of brick and tile products, dates back to 1871 and was a mainstay of the neighborhood known as the brickyards community. Growing up in the brickyards area [Chimbidis went on to recall that] the orange-colored brick and tile plants posed all manner of intrigue and childhood fascination…Here, among the stacks of brick and tile, we hollowed out our secret hiding places. This is where we had our clubhouse meetings and stored our rubber guns. The brickyards also were the places where we struck up conversations with many interesting immigrant workers who had come from all corners of the world (Life in the Brickyard, part II Globe Gazette Mason City,” (IA) Nov 12, 2000).

Chimbidis grew up to become a strapping young man who loved to play sports, especially baseball. After high school Chimbidis (a southpaw) was drafted by the New York Giants as a pitcher and played for a time for the Giant’s Springfield, Ohio and Sanford, Florida farm clubs. As Jim told me, he soon was drafted to begin playing “in the majors,” as he phrased it. But while on the bus with the other newly drafted players he grew increasingly upset and simply returned home.

Chimbidis also served in the United States Army during the Korean Conflict (1950-1953). After his honorable discharge Chimbidis attended the University of Iowa receiving, both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Broadcast Journalism.

Chimbidis first worked in television “on the ABC public service WJZ-TV format of John Hopkins University in Baltimore (Globe-Gazette (Mason City) IA) August 12, 1961).’ Especially notable was his involvement in the creation of what proved to be the long-running television series, ‘Men Who Changed the World.’ “The purpose of the series was to show that advancements are triggered by men whose ideas are so revolutionary that they have changed the course of human events.’ Beginning on January 4, 1959, ‘Men who changed the world. Part 1, ‘the beast within’ was broadcast with authorship credits liberally shared between Lynn Poole, Edwin Fryers, Walter Millis, David Bell and James Chimbidis,” (c.f. Johns Hopkins University, 1959 Peabody Digest). Chimbidis worked on this now-acclaimed series for four years.

After leaving John Hopkins, Chimbidis worked in a wide variety of television, radio and documentary films as a free-lance writer, producer and director traveling the nation and the globe. Chimbidis’ documentary films include – but are far from limited to: ‘To Fermi-With Love,’ ‘Remember When-Mason City: A Historical Album,’ ‘The Stones of Greece,’ ‘The Sitar,’ ‘The Fire Below Us: Remembering Mount St. Helens’ (with a total of 8 editions published between 1995 and 2002. Now held by 161 WorldCat member libraries worldwide), as well as ‘Violent Planet (1997)’ to name a very select few. Throughout his years of wide-ranging travels Chimbidis enjoyed a passion for history, photography, cinema, opera, jazz, and the fine arts.

Somehow, over the years, Chimbidis also found the time to lecture and host screenings of his various films to audiences all across the country. Chimbidis once confided to me that his decision to lecture less as well as host fewer screenings of his films was due to his feeling he was not attracting a new audience but simply presenting the same material to the same core audiences over and over.

In later years Chimbidis settled in as a writer/film maker for Argonne National Lab and Fermi Lab. Over the course of his long career Jim worked with such notable talents as Eric Sevareid, Peter Graves, and as he so often noted with considerable laughter, what he always asserted was that the absolute highlight of his career, his time with Jonathan Winters. Those who know of Chimbidis’ creative career will undoubtedly take issue with this account since I have not mentioned anything having to do with his incredible array of radio programs, again, all of which, were devoted to the arts and sciences as they helped transform the world.

“On Friday, May 11, 2018, James Chimbidis passed away, at his home. Funeral services were held Friday, May 18, 2018 at 10:00 AM at the Daleiden Mortuary in Aurora, Illinois. Rev Gary McCann officiated. Interment was private,” (Aurora Beacon News May 15, 2018).

Greek-American communities all across the country are losing more and more of their own local cultural bearers. There are quite literally a legion of writers, translators, lecturers, academics, radio and television broadcasters, musicians, and many others – all of whom were once incredibly active within their home communities who are now all passing from our midst…seemingly unnoticed. Clearly we are in a time of significant and troubling transitions.

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