I am not being original by saying that the older one gets, the more one returns to his roots. This is something that all of us, or almost all of us, feel.
However, we are sometimes surprised at how strongly our ancestry calls within us, even to the most successful and by all accounts the most disconnected, ‘Americanized’ people of Hellenic descent.
I make this brief introduction prior to talking about John Negroponte, who has served America in more high and sensitive government positions than any other Greek-American, with the possible exception of the late Vice President Spiro Agnew.
In particular, I remind you that Negroponte served as Deputy Secretary of State, as the first ever Director National Intelligence, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and as ambassador to several countries, including Iraq during the American presence there.
In his younger days, he was one of the few diplomats who dared to disagree with Henry Kissinger, regarding the handling of the war in Vietnam, as a result of which he was ‘exiled’ to Honduras when Kissinger became Secretary of State.
Negroponte was born in London to Greek parents, Dimitri Negroponte and Catherine Koumantaros.
Negroponte had no apparent ties with the Greek-American community, except for personal friendships with some individuals. He is certainly not included in the group of political and government officials we consider to be ‘Greeks’.
We didn’t even suspect that he could speak Greek, because of the distance he kept.
And yet, he feels his Greek origin strongly – and he speaks Greek.
The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation, which is based in New York and is one of our leading cultural organizations, led by Nicholas Kourides, son of the late Peter Kourides, right-hand man of Archbishop Iakovos, recently celebrated the ten-year anniversary of its founding in Manhattan, in an impressive venue.
The person of honor was the tall and aristocratic John Negroponte.
The most important element, for me, of what he said in his short and interesting speech was the reference to his grandmother, who did not speak English and who taught him our traditions and language. And to the great delight of the select guests, he recited the Greek nursery rhyme ‘Fengaraki mou Lambro’: My bright little moon, shine brightly for me, so I can walk, to go to school, to learn the alphabet, and all important things – God’s things!
Amazing. It was the emotional climax of the evening and it felt like the hall had been filled by invisible generations of Hellenic expatriates who, on the one hand, claimed us as their own and, on the other, reminded us of the responsibility we have for future generations.
As long as there are grandmothers who will teach their grandchildren ‘Fengaraki’, Hellenism will hold tight in America.
The danger of ‘forgetting’ grows with each generation beyond our Yiayia’s generation. Theirs are roles and contributions that we have not properly recognized and appreciated.