NEW YORK – Every year has its highlights and lowlights, but 2015 – at least as of this journalistic first draft of history – has left a vista of peaks and valleys not seen in a long time, for the community, America, and the world.
The Year in Review sections of other newspapers are dominated by horrific pictures and descriptions of shootings from coast to coast and terrorist atrocities worldwide. It suffices for TNH to note those realities, while on these pages we look back at the community’s year of proud and shameful milestones.
Politics is as good a spot as any to start. Surely every ethnic group had its ups and downs in the world of politics recently. Dean Skelos soared to the top of New York State affairs as the Republican Majority Leader, but after allegations of wrongdoing entangled with his son Adam’s misdeeds emerged, he quickly crashed to earth like his Democrat colleague former NY State Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver in 2015.
A jury found the Skeloses guilty of all eight bribery, extortion and conspiracy counts they faced on December 11.
While the law itself roped in Skelos and Silver, the public’s outrage over corruption in New York State helped political novice but veteran prosecutor Madeline Singas surge to victory as Nassau County’s new District Attorney.
In Washington, DC, where competence and corruption issue linger through the decades, TNH wrote about two Greek-American women distinguishing themselves for their dedication and effectiveness. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Matthews Burwell has a huge plate heaping with issues of fiscal restraint and demands for greater effectiveness from healthcare reform to social welfare programs to challenges like the Ebola outbreak.
Revving up the economy will strengthen one half of the resources-effectiveness equation and as Director of the White House Business Council Diana Doukas is one of President Barack Obama’s bridges to the private sector.
If 2016 turns out to be all that Hillary Clinton dreams it can be, it will be thanks in large part to the efforts and brains of the chairman of her presidential campaign, the community’s John Podesta.
Joe Biden is not Greek, but he loves being called Joe Bidenopoulos. His relationship with the community and concern for the community’s issues including Greece, Cyprus and the Ecumenical Patriarchate culminated in his being honored with the Athenagoras Human Rights Award at the annual Archons banquet in that became an exercise in mutual admiration.
CHURCH PLUSES AND MINUSES
The ship of the Archdiocese of America was buffeted by scandals involving several prominent clergymen even as it celebrated the start of construction on the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox National Shrine and showed institutional potential through the continued growth of its Leadership 100 and Faith endowments that strengthen the programs in support of Hellenism and Orthodoxy.
Although not a shock to New Yorkers who have watched him dodge questions as at the St. Nicholas, Holy Cross, and St. Spyridon parishes, the shocking photos and video that played a role in the downfall of George Passias caused rumbles across the country.
Unanimously defrocked by the synods in America and Constantinople, the consequences of his affair with his married “spiritual daughter” Ethel Bouzalas commingled with allegations of financial improprieties left the historic Washington Heights community in turmoil and Passias’ followers in distress just before the Christmas season.
The story, broken by TNH, appears have a bright side as the St. Spyridon parish has shown signs of unity and commitment to rebuilding.
In the Midwest however attention will be focused on the jury trial that begins February 23, 2016 of Father James Dokos. He has been accused of “improperly spending more than $100,000 from a $1.2 million trust fund intended to benefit the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, where he was the longtime pastor before being transferred to Saints. Peter and Paul” in Glenview, IL according to the Chicago Tribune.
Communities in Long Island are in various stages of recovery from recent fires. The parish St. Demetrios of Merrick celebrated its reopening on its Feast Day of October 26 after a devastating fire in 2013, but the Church of St. Nicholas in Babylon had to celebrate Christmas under a tent after a July fire damaged the altar area.
Archbishop Iakovos was remembered in a remarkable way this year when the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) donated more than $2 million, and its co-President Andreas Dracopoulos made a personal donation exceeding $1 million for the Reflection Area of the National African American Museum of History & Culture, in Washington, DC that will be named after him Iakovos.
MIXED GRADES FOR SCHOOLS
Greek education in America continues to be a cause in search of stronger leadership, but initiatives and the continued dedication of key individuals across the country gives hope.
Though school closings of recent years have not been redressed, one exception is the community of Kimisis tis Theotokos Church in Brooklyn.
Born of the efforts of many, including its Chairman, Charles Capetanakis and Fr. Damaskinos Ganas, and led by Principal Christina Tettonis, the Hellenic Classical Charter School celebrated a ribbon cutting that marked the completion of the construction for its impressive educational complex.
In Denver, CO, Natasa Kallergis is Director of the Denver School of Modern Greek, which she calls a hidden gem. TNH reported last spring about the School and its 160 students from ages 2-4 and Kindergarden-6th Grade. There is also an adult program.
While the School is affiliated with the Assumption Cathedral, it is not subsidized by the church other than use of the classroom facilities.
Queens College’s Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies is thriving and growing. The annual awards dinner and lecture in honor of the program’s founder Harry J. Psomiades, overseen by the Center’s director and assistant director Dr. Christos Ioannides and Effie Lekas, respectively, was held featured 31 scholarships funded by individuals and organizations. TNH columnist Dr. Andre Gerolymatos, presented the keynote address.
The Center was honored in a special ceremony at New York City Hall last Spring and this Autumn it made a great leap forward with the establishment of the Olga and Constantine Brown Endowed Professor and Director of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.
2015 also found the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham going from strength to strength by adding a second endowed chair. Dr. George E. Demacopoulos was appointed as the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies on October 5, joining Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou, who was appointed Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture in 2013.
Controversy engulfed two Greek-Americans at the pinnacle of American higher education. Doctor Nicholas Christakis and his wife, Erika, who are Master and Associate Master of Yale’s Silliman College, respectively. Their attempt to defend free speech on campus caused Erika Christakis to ultimately quit over an email she wrote urging students not to succumb to peer pressure in picking their own Halloween costumes – even if they were deemed offensive.
Hellenes from the time of Socrates have eagerly taken up arms on the culture war front, but they prefer to be culture lovers rather than fighters.
HELLENIC CULTURE HIGHLIGHTED
Hellenes in the film industry continued their love affair with Oscar in 2015. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who has Greek and French roots, won an Academy Award for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Alexander Dinelaris won Best Original Screenplay for the 2014 film Birdman.
The creations of up and coming Hellenic film makers have found appreciation in two now well-established institutions. The Los Angles Greek Film Festival brings Greek cinema into the heart of Hollywood and the NYC Greek Film Festival, led by founding Director Professor James DeMetro, thrives in the media capital of the world. The latter’s benefactors include the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce and the Onassis Foundation (USA).
After enjoying the Onassis Foundation (USA)’s much sought-after events at premier New York venues during an interregnum, Hellenes and Philhellenes in New York were welcomed back to its Onassis Cultural Center following the completion of a renovation and expansion begun under Founding Executive Director Amb. Loucas Tsilas and continued during the tenure of his successor, Amalia Kosmetatou.
The gala opening on October 8 that featured art unveilings and a unique music and dance presentation drew almost 500 people who were welcomed by Foundation President Dr. Anthony Papadimitriou.
Earlier in the year the community expressed its appreciation for the pioneering work of Amb. Tsilas through a number of events that marked his retirement after decades in the Greek diplomatic corps and at the forefront of Greek cultural diplomacy at the Onassis Foundation.
The community’s authors also had a good year. Eleni Gage, daughter of authors Nicholas and Joan Gage continued her exploration of cultures, families and relationships with her third book – and second novel – The Ladies of Managua.
Acclaimed Greek-American novelist Harry Mark Petrakis turned his pen on himself with his memoir, The Song of My Life. TNH’s Penelope Karageorge, who published her own book, a poetry collection titled The Neon Suitcase, said the Petrakis autobiography “offers a page-turner from a man who has led an unconventional life.” The community wishes him many years – and many more books.
As Hellenes have known for millennia, books can enlighten, entertain, and motivate. The Loukoumi children’s book series authored by attorney Nick Katsoris and the foundation it spawned makes it possible for children to turn their good thoughts into good deeds. More than 50,000 children across America participated in Make a Difference with Loukoumi Day on October 24.
Children learn anyone can be a hero from many sources. Alek Skarlatos gained international attention when he and two friends foiled a potential terror attack on a train heading for. Capping a full year for him, Skarlatos, who hails from Oregon and his professional partner Lindsay Arnold, finished third in the most recent Dancing With the Stars TV show.
The ongoing Greek crisis continues to generate suffering and opportunities for people inside and outside Greece to help their fellow Hellenes.
TNH has covered the efforts of groups like the New York-based Hellenic Relief Foundation which has provided food and medicine for needy people, and The Hellenic Initiative, which raised $2.5 million its third annual banquet for the programs that respond to the economic crisis by providing humanitarian aid, supporting entrepreneurs, and generating investment.
Prime Minister of Greece Alexis Tsipras was the surprise speaker at the THI gala high above lower Manhattan with spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island monuments that welcomed the forebears of millions of Greek-Americans.
Later in the year the Capital Link Invest in Greece Forum, featuring presentations by high-ranking Greek officials, was packed with people eager to learn about conditions and opportunities in Greece. The event was also the occasion for honoring Onassis Foundation President Dr. Antonis Papadimitriou when he accepted the Capital Link Hellenic Leadership Award in appreciation for Onassis initiatives during the crisis.
Andreas Dracopoulos, co-President of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, was similarly honored by HACC for his philanthropic leadership at that institution during the Greek Crisis. SNF has to date pledged 300 million euro.
The community’s organizations in Washington, DC have been pursuing ways the U.S. can help Greece emerge from the crisis, as have groups like the Hellenic Caucus, which is led by Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Carolyn Maloney. The latter held a number of press conferences in 2015 both to call attention to the plight of America’s ally and to offer solutions to practical problems.
On August 6 an unprecedented meeting took place at the White House of about 20 community leaders hosted by senior Obama administration officials, one of whom said the meeting was about “how we can work together to help the government and people of Greece emerge from the current crisis.”
People were most impressed with Vice President Joe Biden’s one-hour presence at the meeting that lasted two hours and guests emphasized three things, that the meeting was an important first step and that follow-up it critical, as was reform progress by whatever government would emerge from Greece’s then-upcoming elections. That ballot returned PM Alexis Tsipras.
In the meantime, Greeks, mainly the young, have been voting with their feet, creating a new Grexodus to America, many of them coming to Astoria, as TNH has been reporting.
BUSINESSPERSONS MAKE GOOD NOISE
The National Herald has chronicled the rise and evolution of the Greek-American business community for more than 100 years, but today its members make big impacts in the global media too.
China’s sudden economic slide caught many financial analysts asleep at the wheel, but not Jim Chanos, founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund. He is well-known to TNH readers.
Among the brilliant scientists of Greek descent that TNH spotlighted in 2015 were Dr. Manolis Kellis, a MIT computer scientist who has made breakthroughs in obesity research, and biomedical scientist George Yancopoulos. As President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron Laboratories, whose chairman is another standout in science and industry, Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, Yancopoulos has been the key to numerous new drug successes.
Ted Leonsis, whose success began with AOL and is now best known as a pro-sports owner, made his mark with a decision that now seems prophetic. As owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team, he decided against restoring its original name: Bullets.
Philanthropy and business success have often been a heady Greek-American blend. Michael Psaros, co-Founder and Managing Partner of KPS Capital Partners had two thrills this year: his sale of Waterford Wedgewood was pronounced the deal of a lifetime by the media, and the release of the inspiring documentary, “PISTEVO – I Believe,” about the icons of the Church of Our Savior in Rye, NY for which he was executive producer.
Angelike Frangos, pioneering Greek ship owner, was honored for her philanthropic work by the Seaman’s Church Institute.
Despite shareholder activist Daniel Loeb nipping at his heels, Andrew Liveris President, Chairman and CEO of Dow just capped his career with a merger of his firm with fellow industry giant DuPont. He is also Chairman of THI.
HAPPY HUNDREDTH, TNH
Last but not least, and nearest to our hearts, 2015 witnessed the celebration of the first100 years of The National Herald. A who’s who of the community and 425 friends of the newspaper filled the special event space of the magnificent New York Public Library.
The reception in the elegant foyer and the dinner and program with its touching acknowledgements were enjoyed by all. With images of historic front pages as a backdrop, Publisher-Editor Antonis H. Diamataris, his proud family at his side, praised the loyalty of readers and advertisers and the achievements and sacrifices of its staff and other contributors, and shined a spotlight on the dedication and vision of Founding Publisher Petros Tatanis and those who followed.
Retired Senator Paul Sarbanes summed up the contributions of TNH when he called the newspaper “the school of the community,” but Diamataris emphasized that they were also celebrating the Greek-American community.