By Vicki J. Yiannias
On Tuesday evening, March 18, a large audience of mixed backgrounds and heritage gathered at the foot of the grand marble staircase of the ornate first floor rotunda of the Surrogateʼs Courthouse in Manhattan for the seventh annual Greek Heritage and Culture celebration.
William C. Thompson, Comptroller of the City of New York, who presented awards to the yearʼs five Honorees, led the event.
The five Honorees were Nicholas J. Bouras, Dr. George D. Tselos, Paulette Poulos, Maria Iliou, Jack Soterakis M.D., and Katia Zallas-Rosati.
The Greek Heritage and Culture celebration was co-sponsored by three organizations, the Hellenic Music Foundation, which promotes, advances, and preserves the full spectrum of the Greek musical heritage worldwide; the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee, which offers a diverse program of community services; and the Hellenic Lawyers Association, which addresses the needs and concerns of attorneys of Hellenic descent and presents law scholarships.
Comptroller Thompson introduced John Kaiteris, Executive Director of the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee, and Mr. John Saketos, President of the Hellenic Lawyers Association, and Katia Zallas-Rosati, President and Founder of the Hellenic Music Foundation (and one of the five Honorees). Ms. Zallas-Rosatti gave a greeting and led the audience in singing God Bless America and the Greek National Anthem accompanied by pianist Yannis Xylas.
The community is grateful for Comptroller Thompsonʼs participation in view of the sad circumstances of the death of his mother, Elaine, and her funeral, which took place the next day. The Very Reverend Eugene N. Pappas of the Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, who performed the eveningʼs Invocation and Benediction, prayed for the departed and led the audience in singing the hymn Eonia I Mnimi, May Her Memory Be Eternal at the end of the evening.
At the outset, Mr. Thompson, who was introduced by Tasso Manessis, took a moment to remember the victims of last summerʼs forest fires in the Peloponessos and on the island of Evia, which claimed the lives of over 80 people and damaged thousands of acres of property. “To those who have friends and loved ones whose lives were impacted by this disaster, I offer my deepest sympathies. And to those who contributed to the relief efforts I offer the gratitude of all New Yorkers for your part in reaching out to a nation with deep and very meaningful roots in our city.”
Comptroller Thompson praised the “wonderful contributions” of the Greek-American community to the life of New York City.
For some two centuries, said Mr. Thompson, Greek-Americans have been an integral part of New Yorkʼs history and identity. “Starting in the 19th century, Greek immigrants came to New York seeking opportunity and a better life for themselves and their children. Through hard work and determination, they helped realize the promise of the American Dream…In the process, they helped make our city a better place. Today, New York City is home to the largest Greek population anywhere outside of Greece…and every year, Greek Americans play increasingly prominent roles in the life of our city. And from Washington Heights, to Astoria, to Bay Ridge as well as other Greek American communities elsewhere in the five boroughs, Greek Americans are keeping cultural traditions alive…and teaching children about the history, language, and customs of Greece. As teachers, entrepreneurs, artists, and doctors…in every profession and pursuit…Greek Americans are leaders in New York City.”
He went on to say, “Tonight we are paying tribute to this rich heritage…and we are honoring a distinguished group of Greek Americans who are all achievers in their fields. They are leaders in business and medicine, they are educators and entertainers. They have provided outstanding leadership in the past and the present, and they are all an important part of our future.”
The first Honoree was Nicholas Booras, head of Bouras Industries. “Nicholas Bouras has exhibited enormous leadership qualities across a wide variety of endeavors. In recognition of his outstanding achievements in business, his unwavering commitment to his religious community, and his courageous efforts in defense of his country,” said Thompson. A native Chicagoan, World War II lead bombardier/navigator awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross, eight Air Medals and five Battle Stars, founding member of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Westfield, New Jersey, 32-year member of the Archdiocesan Council, and recipient of many awards and honors, including an Honorary Doctor of Humanities from Hellenic College and the Hellenic Heritage Achievement Award from the American Hellenic Institute and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
The next Honoree, archivist George Tselos, Supervisory Archivist and head of Reference Services at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum for nine years, said Thompson, “has worked to preserve the history and culture of our nation and our City, and to share that history with younger generations…Dr. Tselos has served our city with distinction as run by the National Park Service. Taking inspiration from the torch held high by Lady Liberty, Dr. Tselos has used the Archives, Library and Oral History Program he oversees to cast his own light on the quest for freedom that led waves of immigrants to our shores.”
Dr. Tselos said “We are all justly proud of our heritage from the ancient Greeks who contributed so much to world civilization. There is a renewed interest among young Greek-Americans in their Greek “roots” in Greece which is a positive thing. But we need to remember that the achievements of the Greek-American diaspora community are very significant too and worthy of historical preservation. Greek-Americans struggled successfully to establish themselves, despite anti-Greek prejudice, in a new country, to make a living, to develop businesses, to join with other workers to form unions and to establish such fundamental community institutions as the Orthodox Church and fraternal and community organizations. In the context of American history, the historical records of these struggles deserve to be preserved by saving the archives and publications of Greek-American congregations and organizations and by means of recording oral histories with the immigrant generations and their descendents.”
Honoree Paulette Poulos followed Dr. Tselos. Ms. Poulos has served in various capacities of increasing responsibility in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese since 1965, and since June 2006 has been Interim Director of Development of the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund.
Ms. Poulos told The Greek News that she was honored and humbled to be one of the recipients of the award. “Itʼs a tribute to our Greek heritage, and our culture…Iʼve been proud of being Greek my entire life. My family was one that believed in Greek ideals. No matter where our road takes us in life we should all remember our Church and our heritage. I met Comptroller Thompson years ago when he came to Archbishop Iakovosʼs house after he retired. He came to talk about the importance of Greek heritage and Greek culture in our community and assured the Archbishop that he would, on an annual basis, recognize the Greek Americans and their accomplishments.”
The next Honoree was the founder and president of the Hellenic Music Foundation, Ms. Zallas-Rosati, whose career spans innumerable appearances on television and radio – in recitals, oratorios and opera under the auspices of CBC Radio Canada, the Quebec Opera and the ERT National Radio Network in Greece, and with noteworthy orchestras.
Following Ms Zallas-Rosati, film director Maria Iliou, the founder of the not-for-profit Proteus Foundation, whose film The Journey: The Greek American Dream an exhibition of 2000 photos and films from 50 archives around the US related to immigration stories of Greek Americans, will soon be released DVD. Income produced by sales of the film is providing scholarships to children attending schools burned in the recent fires in Greece.
“I am very interested in migration since I come from a family of the Greek diaspora, from Smyrna,” said Ms. Iliou. Understanding the waves of history -that sometimes destroyed us and others saved us, has been something that also always fascinated me. Being a child of refugees I feel respect and admiration for people that had to leave a country in order to live in another one and since the very beginning, I admired the Greek Americans, especially those ones that came under very poor conditions and managed to strive and offer.”
The final Honoree was hospital executive Dr. Jack Soterakis, Vice President of Medical Affairs and Medical Director of St. Francis Hospitalʼs Heart Center and managing partner of Gastrointestinal Associates of Long Island, until his retirement last year, “In recognition of his accomplishments in the field of medicine and his unselfish commitment to helping a new generation of doctors succeed,” said Thompson. “He is A long-standing member of the Hellenic Medical Society, serving as co-chair of the Continuing Medical Education Committee and the HMS Scholarship Weekend program, which raises money to grant awards and scholarships to talented Greek American students.”
“Zito Ellas Zito Ameriki,” Long live Greece, long live America, said Comptroller Thompson, concluding the evening, “I would like to thank all of you for joining us this evening.”