The following Keynote Address was delivered by Mike Bilirakis, who served as U.S. Congressman (R-FL) from 1983 to 2007, at the St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine in St. Augustine, FL on February 3, 2013, on the occasion of commemorating the 31st anniversary of the dedication of the Shrine.
GROWING UP GREEK-AMERICAN
In my early years I grew up in a typical Greek home in the 1930s and 1940s.
My father worked in the steel mills of the small city of Clairton, PA, a few miles southeast of Pittsburgh. We spoke Greek at home, and with my father outside of the home, even though he spoke, read, and wrote English.
I had a newspaper route at age 10 and sold the Sunday paper each Sunday at the same streetcorner in town. Frankly and truthfully, we lived in poverty – my mother often told me “eemaste ftohi (we are poor)” – but I refused to accept that and always disagreed when she said it.
My father emigrated from the Dodecanese Islands shortly before the start of World War I – his family was from Kalymnos and Karpathos. My mother came in the late 1920s by way of Cuba, then Florida. During the Great Depression, they left Florida to look for work in the steel mills of Clairton. The entire family, along with another family, made the entire journey riding in the back of a truck.
The small community of Hellenes in Clairton had no church; we held services in a local Episcopalian Church. But, as the Greek story in America generally [began with building] a Greek Orthodox Church early on, and then the community would grow around it, so the families of Clairton – men, women, children – organized, followed the leadership and instructions of the only Greek contractor in town, Mr. Spirtos, and literally built our own church, St. Anthony’s.
Although probably only one of two Greek families remain today in Clairton, the church is still there, open only one day per year, for [the Feast of] St. Anthony services.
The city was, I’ve always felt, a good place to grow up, but now it is unimaginably depressed, virtually all the stores closed, boarded up. [It] reminds me of the German cities I saw a few years after World War II.
I was a good student in high school, even though I worked after school until 1 AM as a theater usher. I earned scholarships to college, but again, part of the Hellenic story, I had to help my family, and, so, I turned 18 on a Sunday and was in the steel mill on Monday.
STEEL MILLS, KOREA, LAW SCHOOL, AND FAMILY
I tell people that the war in Korea saved me, strange as that sounds. For two-and-a-half years, I earned decent money in the mill. I turned over the pay envelope, unopened, to my father, thus I was helping there. Basically, [I] was pretty comfortable but not getting my education, I was actually ‘trapped’ in the mill.
When the war in Korea took place, I enlisted and served for four years. I went back to the mill four years later, but the yoke that had strangled me, through no one’s fault but mine, was broken when I left in 1951; and thus, I enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in 1951 to study engineering. Pitt was a private school and the Veterans GI Bill college stipend of $110 per month was insufficient. I didn’t ask for a handout; didn’t look to government. I got a job at a factory quite a distance from the school, where I worked from 11 PM to 7AM six nights per week while still a full-time day engineering student, and served as the president of my department and then of the entire Engineering and Mines student body.
How did I do it? I credit God above, and because I am who my Hellene ancestors have been!
I graduated from Pitt at age 29, married a fantastic lady, Evelyn Miaoulis of Tarpon Springs (FL), and worked my way through law school at the University of Florida. We had two sons, Emmanuel, who is now a physician, and Gus, who became a lawyer and who succeeded me in Congress, where he now serves.
I practiced law, taught at the local college, served as a municipal judge, and volunteered in our community area.
I’ve shared what I said with you because I strongly feel it is emblematic of much of the history of the Hellenes of America and because it leads in to Who We Are! And, that ‘We Are Who We Have Been’!
We didn’t complain and cry crocodile tears that “life’s not fair” or look to the government to guarantee us a better life. We instinctively knew that the Founders of this country, whom we had heard so very much about, declared that “all men are created equal,” and said that this government and this country would be controlled by the people and for the people, and that God endowed the people with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We instinctively knew that we had the God-created right to pursue happiness. And, so, we pursued it. You pursued it. You worked, you learned. You washed dishes and eventually bought the restaurant. You worked for the electrical contractor for poor wages, but you learned and worked hard and eventually bought the business. You worked at all of the menial jobs at the grocery store, learned all of its facets, and then bought that store and branched out to own scores of stores and other businesses. You/we pursued happiness, but did not expect a guarantee of happiness.
You know, we are pretty darn special – not because we think we are or we say we are, but look at what blood flows through our veins! That blood’s history throughout the ages determines who we are!
WHO WE GREEKS ARE
Until 1982 I had not run for a governmental elective office. I had been president of the local Chamber of Commerce, president of my Rotary Club, had founded a volunteer ambulance service, served as an American Legion commander, and worked with veterans and in other volunteer capacities in the Tampa area, but in 1982, after having spurned other efforts asking me to run for elective office, I finally succumbed to running for Congress. I was a Republican in a Democratic district. I was “running for the top,” so to speak, rather than a lesser office, and was told that I had no chance for a number of reasons, one of which was “because you are Greek.”
Well, I say to you, I won because I am Greek!
During one of my debates before hundreds of Rotarians and others, I told the audience that people should not take at face value everything that politicians say, that [persons seeking] office will tell the people what they want to hear, not necessarily who they really are, what they really stand for, and that it is important that the public best dig in to the background, environment, and family of an individual, because “we are who we have been!” “We are who we have been!” I was attacked by my opponents and headlines in the press: “Bilirakis Says You Can’t Believe What He Says.”
I often wonder: where did those words come from? God put them in my head because I sincerely believe them. I said earlier that we are special because of the special blood that runs through our veins (granted, over the years it’s been mixed with others). And, so, who do we say we are?
We are the Ancients: Alexander, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Solon, Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. We laid the foundation in every Western language, including Latin which, by the way, was preceded by Greek by at least 1000 years.
We gave the Western world its oldest and first language. We laid the foundation of many literary, artistic, political, and scientific fields. Thanks to Alexander, we made Greek the international language of the whole Near East.
We, through Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles formed the concept of democracy and the Vouli – an elected council.
Who are we? We originated the Olympic Games.
Who are we? We saved democracy, Christianity, the way of life of the Western World by defeating the largest expeditionary force – land and sea – ever assembled by Kings Darius and Xerxes of Persia, the first world empire, in the battle for Western civilization, the naval Battle of Salamis, the battles of Plataea and Thermopylae, Admiral Themistocles, Leonidas (I commend to your attention the great book Persian Fire by Tom Holland), their blood runs through our veins – that’s who we are!
Of course, we also have in our history the Peloponnesian War – on and off for 27 years – the other clashes among the city-states of Greece that are also part of our blood; it sometimes keeps us from being unified and often facing the concept of [Greek vs.] ‘xeno’. However, that’s also who we are.
We are Macedonians – we true Macedonians are Greek – the Slavs didn’t arrive in the Balkans until the Sixth Century AD – 1000 years after the time of Alexander. We Macedonians, under the initiative of King Ptolemy II had the Old Testament translated into Greek in 281 BC.
St. Paul started his work in Macedonia according to author Nikos Martis. Mr. Martis also tells that Russian Patriarch Alexej claims that Russia would have been an Asiatic people with the Islamic religion were it not for the Macedonian contribution to converting them to Christianity.
We, through Alexander, introduced the age of Hellenism and Greek education to peoples of decadent cultures.
Who are we? Greece, through Aristotle particularly, and some of the other ancients contributed, through their works and philosophies, to the formation of our country in the writing of the United States Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
We are those courageous, religious, nationalistic Hellenes who survived 700 years of occupation by the Ottoman Empire, who retained their religion, language, and culture throughout the occupation.
We decided that “enough is enough – eleftheria-i-thanatos (liberty or death)” on March 25, 1821, an eight-year war won for independence with the support of poet Lord Byron, Edward Everett, American Senator Daniel Webster, Samuel Howe, and others.
The stories of our own holocausts, the genocides by the Turks, and particularly the one on in Chios in 1822.
Who are we? We are the first Greek to set foot in America, John Griego, with Christopher Columbus, and the first Greek to settle in America, by the name of Theodore.
We are the immigrants to America who held to the Greek concept of individual freedom that supersedes individual survival, and who came to the St. Augustine area with Dr. Andrew Turnbull in 1768. Their story is the stuff of legends and, as His Eminence Alexios says it, the St. Photios shrine gives us the opportunity to celebrate and remember the hardships and triumphs of all of our ancestors who built new lives upon the solid foundations of Hellenism and Orthodoxy.
Who are we? We fought on the side of the Allies in World War I. Many of us heard of this land prior to them and especially afterwards, which was so far away from our homeland, and braved hardships to come here. Can we, who didn’t directly have that experience, possibly imagine what it must have been like first to raise the money, then cross a rough ocean, all the while wondering whether they would fail the physical and be returned to Greece? Why did we do it? For various reasons, obviously, but mostly for the opportunity to pursue happiness.
We, upon arriving in America, did not know the language, had no skills, no education. We worked in the mines of Utah, the railroads, factories, but retained the traditions, customs, culture, especially our religion, and yet, I dare say, most succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
We fought in World War II with the Allies. We Cretans using pitchforks, shovels, anything as a weapon, punished the German parachutists so severely that Hitler had to send troops slated for the Russian Front to subdue us in Crete. The elite German parachutists were never used again.
We pushed the Italians out of Epiros and, again, the Germans had to come to their rescue. As a result of the Cretan and Epiros failures, the planned move of those German troops to the Russian front was delayed – a most significant impact on the war. Our people suffered during the war in ways we cannot fathom, but they retained their religion and culture and, as the story goes, in the islands at night, the Greeks painted their homes with the Greek flag colors and were punished during the day and forced to repaint their homes white. Then, at night, they would again repaint them blue and white.
Who are we? We are Cypriots who saw our country torn in two by the 1974 Turkish invasion – and although we want the troops to leave and to get our homes and occupied lands returned to us, and we view Famagusta and other occupied cities – once and still beautiful – with tears in our eyes, we have survived because we are Hellenes.
That is who we are! That’s why I won my congressional seat and kept being reelected for a total of 24 years, why my son Gus succeeded me in a very tough campaign in 2006. That is why, in spite of the horrendous, disastrous start of those of our forefathers who came to this area with Dr. Turnbull, they have lived on through all of us and laid the foundation for this impressive, spiritual Shrine and for all of us to live a pretty good quality of life.
We are a very special people because we are who we have been!