Although his father was a Greek immigrant, John Calamos Sr., founder of Naperville-based Calamos Asset Management, grew up with little connection to the country or its heritage. Today, Calamos, 75, is pouring millions from his personal fortune into helping save the debtridden nation and spreading its cultural history.
“It’s true,” Calamos says. “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” He donated $1 million to bring “The Greeks,” an exhibition featuring the gold Mask of Agamemnon and antiquities connected to Alexander the Great, to the Field Museum. It runs through April 10 before traveling to other North American sites.
Calamos, who serves as his company’s CEO and global co-chief investment officer, also is part of the Hellenic Initiative, a nonprofit organization of 40 Greek-American executives who give financial support to Greek families and villages in need— and unofficial advice to the country’s business and political leaders. Greece is squeezed by a debt bill of some $350 billion and a depression.
Unemployment was nearly 25 percent last month. The country came close to exiting the European Union last year before ultimately accepting a variety of austerity measures in return for more international loans.
Calamos and other board members of the Hellenic Initiative have talked to the Greek prime minister and others about removing red tape that prevents the private sector from growing. “That would create jobs,” he says. Greek officials are receptive, though it remains “a slow and complicated process.”
Last year, Calamos also took part in a venture fair in which entrepreneurs pitched him business ideas. John Koudounis, a Chicago native and CEO of Mizuho Securities USA in New York, says Calamos “brings a lot to the table in terms of seniority.”
Koudounis also serves on the Hellenic Initiative board and the board of Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum, which Calamos chairs. “He has experience in business and philanthropy and he understands the big picture of the economy,” Koudounis says.
Other members include America Online founder and Groupon director Ted Leonsis, Hostess owner Dean Metropoulos and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington.
Calamos grew up on the city’s West Side above the grocery store that his family ran seven days a week. His parents spoke Greek to each other but not to their children. “They wanted us to assimilate completely” into American life, he says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA in finance from IIT, where he also was part of the ROTC, Calamos joined the U.S. Air Force and served in Vietnam. In 1977, he founded the money-management company, which currently has $22.8 billion under management.
Calamos first traveled to Greece in 1981, a country he only knew from his father’s storytelling. “If I said, ‘Dad, the lake is beautiful today,’ he’d say, ‘You think that’s beautiful? You should see the Aegean Sea. That’s beautiful.’ ”
The trip transformed Calamos, who has since dedicated his time and fortune to philanthropies associated with Greece and Greek Americans.
That passion plays out at home, too. Calamos has been working to re-create some of his mother’s Greek recipes. “We wrote down as much as we could before she died” in 1979, Calamos says. “But it’s difficult,” he says, recalling his mom using “a pinch of this or that” to prepare each delicacy. One recipe he’s mastered is her avegolemono (egg-lemon) soup. You can find the dish at CityGate Grille, part of Calamos’ real estate operation and corporate campus in Naperville.