By Sophia Niarchos and Penny Kastaris
Ona Spiridellis, a Greek-American woman whose love of her heritage, her Church, her family and her country knew no bounds, passed away Sunday night, January 18, 2004 after battling cancer for several months. Her family and a community that has known Ona and her passion for supporting the goals and dreams of many philanthropic causes is greatly saddened by their loss.
Professionally, Ona was an entrepreneur, the owner of the Boonton, N.J., public relations firm that bore her name. But one might say that the business existed in conflict with Ona’s heart because she was so generous with her time, talents, and treasure for the beloved causes and institutions that benefited people in need; and, on many occasions, she cheerfully gave away her services.
Though there is never a “good” time to lose a good person, Ona’s death on the eve of the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, accentuated the importance of the vision for peace that was at her core and led to her involvement in the World Peace Institute and the World Peace Gymnasium at St. John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church in Tenafly, N.J.
King’s efforts for equality, albeit racial equality, paralleled Ona’s enthusiastic support for women to have equal rights in the professional world. She was passionate about education, child care issues and promoted women’s causes, including her active involvement with the Greek American Women’s Network (GAWN). During GAWN’s Eleventh National Conference on October 19, 2002, Ona led a workshop entitled “What Men Know about Success and Women Need to Learn. “
GAWN President Stacey Nicholas said Spiridellis was generous with her time and money within the organization and helped to empower women. “She was a true networker who was able to get people together so they can help each other.”
According to NBC Today Show Producer Dorie Klissas, “Ona was a ray of light for all of us. Her sparkle helped motivate us to achieve our dreams. She seemed always working on a project, or helping others. We’ll miss Ona and her delightful manner and spirit.”
Ona’s social activism and community involvement extended to local and national politics, including her candidacy for the U.S. House of Representative in 1992 (NJ -11Congressional District). She was also actively involved in the former presidential campaigns for Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis and Bill Bradley.
Bradley, a New Jersey Senator for 18 years and a former Olympic gold medalist, knew Spiridellis for over two decades. He described her as being “tenacious” about her life and in how she dealt with the disease that finally claimed it. “Ona was dedicated to her children, dedicated to her Church, dedicated to her country. She was wonderful, loving and willing to do whatever it took to achieve her vision.”
Not only did Spiridellis serve on the former senator’s advisory committee for Greek American issues, but the two families had known each other since their children were young and played together on the Jersey shore. Bradley said, “Ona was an extremely dedicated, strong and generous human being. Ernestine (his wife), Teresa (daughter) and I all love her.”
Ona Spiridellis, who was 61, is servived by a close-knit family including her children and grandchildren: Son Trent Spiridellis (35), his wife Karen and their children Jack (4) and Kaitlin (21 months), daughter Anthyanna Richmond (33), her husband Daniel and their son Nikolas (18 months), and Ona’s youngest child Nicole (27).
Anthyanna shared her memories about the major causes that were important to her mother such as “promoting women’s issues, especially for Greek American women because of their strength and power within society in general,” her charitable work, and her dedication to Greek causes.
Along with being a patriotic American, Spiridellis was very active in institutions related to the Greek and Cypriot heritage and to the Orthodox Church.
“If it was Greek, we would do it,” Anthyanna recalled about her growing-up years. Her mother had the three siblings involved in Orthodox Sunday School, Greek School, Joy, YAL, and Ionian Village in Greece, along with other activities.
More recently, Spiridellis had been promoting several major visionary projects with Michael Parlamis, an MIT graduate, structural engineer, and Hellenic benefactor. This included Parlamis’ goal for the proposed National Hellenic Museum in Washington, DC modeled after one of the most famous Orthodox Churches since the time of Byzantium, Aphia (Saint) Sophia Church in Instanbul, Turkey, using designs that were produced from 1937-1957 by a team led by William Emerson, a former MIT dean of architecture. Other major initiatives that Parlamis is spearheading include his pledge to St. John the Theologian for construction of the World Peace Gym.
Spiridellis was also supportive of a Greek-American presence in key American celebrations. According to Nick Perdaris, President of the AHEPA Heritage Foundation, “[Ona’s] letters to the editors of various Greek-American newspapers supporting the Tournament of Rose Parade float project (which his organization sponsored), expressed her sincere belief in its significance to the Hellenic community as well as to the AHEPA family,”
“She will certainly be missed. It was all from the heart,” he explained. “She did not want to be compensated for her efforts. I really got a charge when she would call and say, ‘Hey, Perdaris, how is the float coming?’”
Eleni Daniels, the first president of the domestic abuse referral and support group Elpides and a former director of COSMOS-FM radio called Ona “an incredible woman” who was “loving, kind, compassionate, strong and so supportive. She was always behind the efforts of Elpides from the start. And when Ona first heard I had become director of COSMOS-FM, she was the first to call and congratulate me”
Ona Spiridellis had become good friends with actress Olympia Dukakis since they spent time together on the Michael Dukakis Presidential Campaign. In fact, Olympia had invited Spiridellis to go to the Academy Awards where she ended up winning Best Supporting Actress for “Moonstruck.”
Last summer, Ona had arranged for Olympia to speak at an Elpides fund-raiser in lower Manhattan. Not only was this event successful in raising awareness and funding for domestic violence, but Ona also helped other aspiring Greek American artists through her networking efforts. Ona showcased Comedienne Ellen Karis during the opening, and also took the time to personally introduce screen writer Fotene Trigonis to Dukakis. Both Fotene and Ellen expressed their sadness after learning of Ona’s death, and shared their appreciation of the encouragement Spiridellis showed them even during the time of her illness.
Along with inspiring talented individuals to achieve their dreams, Spiridellis had a passion for a cross-section of charitable causes. She participated in the American Cancer Society and the New Jersey Muscular Dystrophy Association, which honored her as the “2002 Woman of the Year.” Philoptochos and St. Basil Academy were among many of the institutions she championed.
Ona was also on the Board of Lainie’s Angels, a hospital support group for parents with children suffering from blood diseases. Stathis Afendoulis, who founded the organization along with his wife Emily, called Ona “a grand lady.” He said she was a “blessing” and “one of our closest and dearest friends. Her friendship and devotion helped us through the most difficult time in our lives. And when that was done, she continued to support us with her love and volunteer her help to the foundation.
Afendoulis explained that Ona’s family has chosen to make Lainie’s Angels the beneficiary of memorial gifts, which the foundation has pledged to create in her memory. Individuals wishing to make donations should send their checks payable to Lainie’s Angels; please specify that it is for the Ona Spiridellis Memorial Found. The Mailing address is Lainie’s Angels, 24 Oak Grove Lane, Edison NJ 08820.
Spiridellis was active in a number of Greek Orthodox churches in her home state, and even visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (Instanbul), Turkey several years back. In anticipation of his eulogy at her funeral, Fr. Demetrios Antokas of the Holy Trinity Church in Westfield, N.J., described Ona as “a devout Christian, one who loved the Lord” and noted that three priests from neighboring communities would also be at the funeral including the V. Rev. Archimandrite Alexander Kile of St. Demetrios in Union, the Rev. Fr. Konstantine Tsigas of St. Andrew’s in Randolph, and the Rev. Presbyter Peter Souritzidis of Sts. Constantine & Helen in Orange. “Anyone who knew Ona, knew her as a kyria (a lady), a gracious, and embracing woman who tried to bring people together.”
Among those who attended the funeral was Holy Trinity Philoptohos President and Interior Designer Athena Economou, who described Ona “as a true Renaissance women, with boundless energy, always optimistic, kind and generous. She was a true thinker with a world view who provided a great support system to all those around her.”
Ona Spiridellis’ legacy is not just that of a successful business executive, mentor, humanitarian and community activist. She also exemplified important aspects of the Hellenic and American ethos: to passionately seek the possibilities and opportunities in life despite its challenges, to courageously pursue one’s dreams, and to fearlessly open one’s heart to helping others along the way.