NEW YORK – Ambassador Lucas Tsilas has completed his 15-year tenure as the Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA) in accordance with the organization’s mandatory retirement rules.
During that time, the Foundation became a beacon of Greek culture and played a catalytic role in the support and promotion of Greek studies in American universities and constituted a significant cultural presence in the Community.
In this interview with TNH, Amb. Tsilas takes stock of the variety of activities he oversaw and expressed his views on matters relating to homeland. He also praises the Diaspora, which he knows both as diplomat, representing Greece in the United States, and as the Foundation’s Executive Director.
The full text of the interview follows:
TNH: You just resigned from the post of Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA). Can you tell us why?
LT: After nearly fifteen years with the Onassis Foundation, the circle has been closed. Organizations and individuals need renewal.
TNH: In 2000 you were called by the Onassis Foundation to undertake the duties of executive director of the newly-founded Onassis Foundation (USA), leaving one Greece’s most important embassies. Tell us why you responded to the call of the late Stelios Papadimitriou.
LT: The call from the truly memorable Stelios Papadimitriou opened up three possibilities and prospects. First, to contribute to the realization of his vision, the implementation of the mission of the Foundation for the promotion of Greek culture.
Second, it gave me the opportunity to return to the United States, this dynamic, democratic and multicultural country that our whole family loves. Finally, we knew that by promoting the work of the Foundation, we would have the pleasure of again working with our dear Greek-American community.
My wife and I made this difficult decision together. She and I saw the call by Stelios Papadimitriou in the same light. And all these years, as during the rest of our life together, she believed in our mission and worked for its success with dedication.
These perspectives helped us make the really difficult decision to abandon a long diplomatic career and to devote ourselves to the success of the mission of the Onassis Foundation in America.
TNH: Did you reach you goals?
LT: The multifaceted promotion of the values of our Greek cultural heritage, not only in the United States but throughout the Americas in general, were the primary objectives of the Foundation. The realization of these objectives was a huge responsibility, but it is also very satisfying. Especially when in the course of our work we perceived how deeply Greek civilization is woven into the fabric of American life, in its political philosophy, art, literature, and education.
It might not be good to boast, but it is an objective fact that all our events yielded full houses. There were also countless positive reviews in Greek, American, and foreign media, in print, television, and online. Meeting our targets is also a reflection of the countless enthusiastic comments of those who participated in our activities, people of all ages and backgrounds – scientists, intellectuals, artists, politicians, and ordinary people.
I would like at this point to acknowledge with admiration and gratitude the substantial and decisive contribution of all my colleagues. Their dedication, tireless efforts, and effectiveness inspired the continued active support and wise guidance of the President and Members of the Board of the Foundation.
TNH: Which of the events and achievements stand out in your mind and why?
LT: It is very difficult to discriminate among one’s creations, one’s children. Our archaeological exhibitions, musical concerts, dramatic readings of ancient writers, our theatrical collaborations, literary evenings, open discussions featuring personalities, intellectuals, scientists, religious figures, and artists are just some of our activities.
I can perhaps highlight the unprecedented “Trial of Socrates” that was held in the Supreme Court of New York with the participation of senior judges and celebrity lawyers. Particularly memorable was our concert at Carnegie Hall in the presence of the Secretary General of the United Nations and more than 70 foreign Ambassadors.
I would also like to refer to our educational activities. A large number of great teachers from around the world taught in hundreds of universities in North and South America about Greek culture and the achievements of Greek science. There were international conferences in Canada, New York, and Mexico, with leading Hellenists focusing on issues such as teaching the Greek language and the future of Greek studies. Many books on Greek culture were written by leading scholars due to the Foundation’s initiatives.
In this context, I am touched when I recall the variety of educational events not only in the U.S. and Canada but also in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
TNH: You have worked with many museums and scholars in Greece and in America. What do they think about our culture?
LT: The important thing is the consciousness that Greek culture is timeless and belongs to and affects all of humanity. Our active commitment to this simple but critical truth has opened all doors and found only warm supporters.
In the global cultural capital that is New York, where all countries and cultural trends coexist and compete, the Onassis Foundation, in this spirit, has left a distinct mark.
TNH: Has the crisis in the homeland has affected the visibility of Greek culture in America and the role of the institution you led?
LT: It is certain that the crisis in Greece is not the best advertisement, given that it is often presented with distortions and exaggerations. Ultimately, every country’s history moves through crises and difficulties. However, our great cultural heritage always provides us with a solid foundation and is an effective weapon.
TNH: You have spent half of your professional career in America – in New Orleans for your studies and as Consul, in Washington as Ambassador, and 14 years in New York. You know better than anyone the potential of the Diaspora. You have worked closely with the Diaspora and have relied on its members to a great extent for the success of your endeavors. On the other hand, couldn’t the homeland take better advantage of what the Diaspora has to offer? Why doesn’t it?
LT: I feel a deep love for our Diaspora and have unlimited esteem and confidence in its potential. It is true that in each of my professional capacities I have worked closely with and relied upon our Diaspora. I was never disappointed. We must never forget that our Greek-American community consists in its entirety of worthy members of American society who never forget their origin. Each in his own way is doing his or her best to keep our culture alive our culture and to strengthen the traditionally friendly relations between Greece and America. I simply express the hope that Greece will more actively pursue the development of this wonderful reality.
TNH: You have served in important positions for Greece, including as Director of the Diplomatic Office of the Prime Minister. What are the principles that should govern relations between the two countries?
LT: Greece and America are united by the common struggle for democracy, freedom, human rights and the protection of religious and cultural diversity. These values and principles govern and will continue to guide Greek-American relations.
TNH: As we enter 2015, what worries you about not only Greece, and America, but also about the world order?
LT: Instead of addressing my concerns, I would prefer to express wishes and hopes.
My hope and wish is that Greece will quickly overcome its multifaceted crisis and take its rightful place in the world. I offer my best wishes for this great country where we live to continue its great contributions to peace and prosperity. Finally, I wish for greater understanding and more productive cooperation among all the world’s peoples.
TNH: What are your plans for the future?
LT: I have already begun to teach at a university in the region. I would like to continue working for the promotion of our universal and timeless heritage, building on the journey that has brought me here.
In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude and my admiration to The National Herald. The newspaper is today in the worthy hands of its Publisher-Editor, Antonis Diamataris, and his associates. This year you are celebrating one hundred years of active participation and vigorous solidarity in the many struggles of the Diaspora for the advancement and promotion of the rights of Hellenism. It has established itself as an institution and is an achievement of the entire Greek-American community.