What can we say about Greek-American hero and New Yorker Thomas Kansas? Born in the Kingdom of Greece in the late 1800s, Thomas left Greece during a very a tough time, journeying into the unknown on a sea voyage across the Atlantic, with little hope of success. He was likely travelling away from home for the first time in his life.
He is venturing into a land, the United States, where he does not speak, read, or write English, and has no skills to speak of. He carries only his will and tenacity to find work, and applies his strong sense of commitment to making it in the land of opportunity.
Mr. Thomas Kansas, and his brothers John and Andrew, made their way to Schenectady, a city 165 miles north of New York City, with a 1912 population of about 80,000.
Within a few years of working together, they bought and operated their own produce store and later owned a restaurant in the City of Schenectady.
Thomas was well known amongst his fellow Greeks, not only in his city but in the surrounding towns including Albany NY.
With the Balkan War on the horizon, Thomas reached out to his fellow Greeks and organized a series of meetings to establish a concerted effort, expecting a call to arms. Many of the men working in the upstate region of New York State were in the Army reserve with a clear obligation to return to Greece for active duty if war was declared. By Friday, October 4, 1912, the Schenectady Gazette’s front page printed the Greek Government’s call to duty for all Greeks throughout the United States that found themselves in the Greek military reserves. The announcement was of course made in the many Greek language newspapers, and also most American newspapers throughout the United States. The Greeks had to make fast decisions. Do they leave all they had built, their jobs, which represented almost every blue-collar and many white-collar positions, their businesses, their property – a few even had families in the States – and leave for war?
As a community leader, Thomas Kansas quickly rallied the men for a discussion on the details and logistics of leaving for war, and how long it would take to leave since they had established themselves as respectable members of the working community. However, there were no second thoughts; they were obligated and honor bound, and so they would leave as soon as possible. The great majority of the reservists and a strong representation of pure volunteers would set out within a matter of days for the front.
Once they agreed on the details, they made their way to the Schenectady train station and set out for New York City. And once in the city, they would board steamships for Greece.
Thomas had two brothers, one that stayed in Schenectady, Andrew, the oldest, would watch over their business affairs, the youngest brother, John, left with Thomas for the war. Thomas would correspond with the local newspaper, sending back letters with details of the trip to Greece and the war, even sending pictures to friends and family, which had become something of a common practice since photos were affordable and easy to take and develop in a timely fashion. The local newspaper even published some of his correspondence.
Once arriving in Greece, Thomas and John were sent to the front. They fought and eventually completed their military duty. They met with their family before leaving for the trip back to the United States in 1914. And while in Greece he would recruit a Greek Priest, who agreed to travel to the United States and establish the first Greek Orthodox Church, later named St. George’s GOC in Schenectady NY (which still exists to this day).
Thomas was a founder and the first Parish Council president; his brother John later became a founding member of the local AHEPA chapter in 1926.
So, what do we say about the life of a hero like Thomas Kansas? He was a pioneer builder of the new Greek-American community – like many other Balkan War veterans. He married and had a family in the United States, became a business owner, and a driving force behind both the Church and the business community. His brother John was active in the civic affairs of the American community as well, blending their pride for native Greece and their new home of the United States.
Thomas’s story is not unique as most of the returning Balkan War veterans helped establish the oldest Greek communities and= parishes in the United States.
To Mr. Thomas Kansas, and Mr. John Kansas, although you are unsung Greek-American heroes, I extend my sincerest gratitude and may you and all the other Balkan War Heroes never be forgotten.
Next time we meet one of the greatest American Philhellenes of the first Balkan War of 1912.
Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913.
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