FORT LAUDERDALE, FL – Elizabeth (Betty) Athanasakos, a pioneer in Broward County’s legal community, died at her home in Fort Lauderdale, on August 2, just a few days short of her 95th birthday. She was surrounded by her family and friends, who saw her through a brief recent illness.
Athanasakos moved to Broward County from New York in 1957, the year she was admitted to the Florida Bar. She continued to practice law in Broward County until her death. In addition to daily law practice, Athanasakos served in numerous local, state, national and international leadership capacities associated with women’s rights and human rights. In 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed her presiding officer of the International Women’s Year Commission after her previous service on President Richard Nixon’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities, and as Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rights and Responsibilities of Women at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. During her tenures, ‘A Matter of Simple Justice’ and ‘To Form a More Perfect Union: Justice for American Women’ were published, outlining recommendations for improving the status of women and urging Congress’ passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter reappointed Athanasakos to the International Women’s Commission.
“The goal is to end up with some solid, workable solutions, to sensitize the public, and to strengthen the role of women,” said Athanasakos in the Miami Herald, July 18, 1976.
Born in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, NY, her parents Clement and Irene (Vrettakos) were immigrants from Greece who owned the historic ice cream parlor Clement’s Confectionary and Tea Room. In 1953, she became President of the Matrons Group of the Order of Eastern Star, a fraternal group of women and men whose mission is to give their time to projects that benefit their community. Athanasakos then attended St. John’s Law School in New York, where she graduated with one other woman and 150 men.
She moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1957 and took a job at an insurance company until she partnered with another attorney and opened a private civil law practice in 1958. Athanasakos became a sole practitioner in 1961. At that time in Broward County, she was the sixth woman to practice law and first to serve as a judge; she was appointed a municipal judge in the cities of Wilton Manors 1964-1972 and Oakland Park 1968-1972. She also served as attorney for the Broward County Supervisor of Elections and assistant attorney for Port Everglades.
In 1976, Athanasakos served on the delegation to the United Nations meeting on Women in Geneva, Switzerland, and worked on a Draft for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. She served as the President of the Broward Women’s Breakfast Club (1964); Florida Association for Women Lawyers (1976-78); Grand (International) President of the Daughters of Penelope (1965-66); Board member of the United Way of Broward County; St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Lauderdale Parish Council President (1980-83); National President of Business and Professional Women, USA (1990-91); President of Zonta Club of Fort Lauderdale (1992), and more recently she led the Zonta Club of Greater Deerfield Beach (2017-2019). For more than 30 years, Athanasakos supported and helped organize the Fort Lauderdale Easter Sunrise Service, held on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
In addition to her business, professional and civic service, she was active in the local and national Republican Party, having served as a Precinct Captain and member of the Broward County Republican Executive Committee and National Federation of Republican Women. She ran for Florida State Senate in 1974 as a Republican candidate and was narrowly defeated in a runoff. During the campaign, Athanasakos was attacked as a liberal for her “pro-ERA” stand. After that campaign experience she began actively recruiting and training other women to run for political office and supported their campaigns. She was one of the founding members of the Gwen Cherry Political Caucus in Broward County.
In recognition of her dedicated service, Athanasakos was the recipient of many accolades and awards. She was inducted into the Broward County Women’s Hall of Fame (1992); listed as an honored professional in Who’s Who in Executives and Businesses (2001); and more recently recognized by the Broward County Bar Association as a Women Pioneer in the Legal Community (2019), among many other distinctions.
In response to a question once posed by a reporter, Athanasakos recounted her chief assets as “a sense of humor, objectivity and decisiveness,” although she conceded, “I do become dogmatic on issues once in a while,” the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel reported on August 1, 1976.
More recently, when interviewed for a BPW magazine article on February 22, 2022, Athanasakos reflected: “Past achievements are being stifled and women are losing the protection and support they have worked so hard to achieve… We’re going backwards. I think we are in a time when, if women do not speak up, we’re going to be losing a lot more.”
“When it came to justice and equality for women, Betty was steadfast in her vision and commitment. She served as a mentor to countless women, always encouraging them to ‘lead’, ‘speak up’ and go beyond their often-perceived limitations. Through service, we laughed and worked hard together to bring about social change and improve our communities. To call Betty a mentor and friend is an honor,” said Marilyn Bonilla Krantz, Esq.
Athanasakos is survived by her sister Antonia Hyland of Deerfield Beach; brother Evangelos (Carol) Athanasakos of San Rafael, California; nieces Elizabeth (Barbara) Hyland of Wilton Manors; Rena (Patrick) Shahan of Monument, Colorado; Lesa (James) Ramage of Reno, Nevada; nephew Nicholas (Jane) Athanasakos of Arroyo Grande, California; 10 grandnieces and -nephews and one great-grand niece, Blair Shahan of Lincoln, Nebraska; several relatives in Greece; many long-time friends and colleagues, and her beloved cats Theo, Aggie, and Luey. In lieu of flowers the family graciously suggests donations be made in Betty’s honor to the Daughters of Penelope and/or Pace Center for Girls of Broward County.
Visitation will be held on Sunday, August 7, 2-5 PM at Baird-Case Jordan-Fannin Funeral Home, 4343 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL.
The funeral service will begin on Monday, August 8, 10:30 AM at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, 81 N.E. 15th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, and will be live streamed at https://bit.ly/3bITyMC.
Burial to follow at Lauderdale Memorial Park, 200 S.W. 4th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.
The AHEPA Talk from March 26, 2021, titled ‘A Conversation with Elizabeth Athanasakos’ is available for viewing on YouTube: https://bit.ly/3bC9U9X.