Harry Mark Petrakis, the greatest novelist in the history of our Community, "one of the greatest" writers in America in general, according to the Chicago Sun Times, passed away at the age of 97.
Like his compatriot, Nikos Kazantzakis, Charalambos Petrakis was larger than life.
He walked firmly, proudly on Mount Psiloriti. He had deep roots in the island of Crete, where his father, who was a priest, came from. Harry was born in St. Louis and grew up in Chicago.
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the Society of Midland Authors, said, “I view Harry Mark Petrakis as one of the greatest Chicago writers throughout our history … He gave a unique voice to the Greek community and to the entire human community.”
Haralambos, as he liked me to call him, was a giant, as a writer and a man.
He wrote 24 books, most of which recollect his childhood memories of Chicago. They were hard years.
His books are much less read by our fellow Hellenes than they deserve. This is the fate of Diaspora writers.
What he wrote in English – since he was born in St. Louis – was cut off from a part of the Greek Diaspora.
Only recently were a few of his books translated into Greek.
Henry Kisor, a retired book editor of the Sun-Times and author of 10 books, said, “Harry was among the most exuberant writers to walk the streets of Chicago ... He really should have been better known, although he was hardly a neglected author.”
He is very right.
I surprised him, still a young publisher at the time, when I contacted him.
“How did you find me,” he asked.
His voice was deep, loud, unforgettable - like a bell. He was always cheerful – except when his wife ‘left’ this world – and he read the newspaper articles as much as his knowledge of Greek allowed.
Later, when we started publishing the English edition, we featured several of his articles. And every time the newspaper came to his house – initially in Chicago – he would call me to thank me that the articles were usually on the front page.
Of course, I was not doing him a favor. They deserved to be on page one.
Much later, he visited New York, where he was honored by Pancretan Society at Terrace on the Park.
He gave an amazing speech. But beyond the words – he also spoke in Greek – the crowd was transfixed by his resonant voice that reverberated off the ceiling like a festive bell. His gestures were intensely Mediterranean, as he lived every word he pulled from his linguistic quiver to describe his life experiences.
In his writing, he was himself – authentic, brave, sensitive, and strong.
His books on the Revolution, The Hour of the Bell and The Shepherds of the Shadows, are national treasures and everyone should read them. I wish thousands of copies could be printed in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution we will celebrate next month.
In 2014, he released Song of My Life - A Memoir, with a photo of his family on the cover.
He sent it to me with the following note, which I now reveal, as a final farewell: “For Antonis Diamataris: Vigilant journalist, dear friend – Harry Mark Petrakis. August 9, 2015.”
Harry Mark Petrakis ‘left’, but he belongs to the class of people who never really die.
May his memory live forever!