New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Penelope Tsilas, lawyer, philanthropist, wife, and mother, stood as an exceptional representative of all Greek American women as she received the “Greek American Woman of the Year” award at AGAPW’s (Association of Greek American Professional Women) on March 28 at the Women’s History Month Celebration held at the Cyprus House in New York, in the presence of The Honorable Consuls General Koula Sophianou, of Cyprus and Georgios Iliopoulos, of Greece, her admiring friends and professional connections. But most important of all, to her family, Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, their son, Nicos (senior attorney for Government Affairs with the Microsoft Corporation), and daughter Vicky (Vassiliki) (tax attorney at the US Treasury Department in Washington DC), whose loving acknowledgement testified to her enormous success as a wife and mother.
As well, in Mrs. Tsilas’ honor, a $3,000 scholarship was presented to Queens College student Alexandra Kavouros, AGAPW’s 2012 Outstanding Female Student of Greek Descent by Liana Theodoratou, director of the Alexander S. Onassis Program of Hellenic Studies at New York University. Dr. Olga Alexakos, President and Founder of AGAPW, said, ‘Alexandra, we know you are a rising star,” to the scholarship recipient, whose mother, father, and sister were in attendance, “We want to congratulate the whole family.”
“By awarding Mrs. Tsilas, we are honoring an amazing woman who has dedicated her life to law, diplomacy and celebrating the Greek cultural legacy, while symbolically we are cherishing our own Greek mothers who have given us their strength, beauty, integrity, and wisdom,” said AGAPW board member, Dr. Aphrodite Désirée Navab, in her presentation titled, “The Significance of Women’s History Month”. “Wherever Mrs. Tsilas has lived she has offered her legal expertise while drawing from her Greek heritage and balancing a family.”
Olga Alexakos, who said that she was “overcome by happiness”, by the unfolding events of the evening, described Mrs. Tsilas as being “like a Russian doll, which you open and find another one underneath!”
Asked how she felt about her AGAPW award, the upbeat, energetic Penelope Tsilas said, “It was a great honor, and very moving for me. But I don’t think I’ve done anything that other women haven’t done…we work hard to try to take care of whatever needs to be accomplished. Many times our role is difficult, but it is also satisfying…as the saying goes, ’it has its rewards’”.
The Greek-born Mrs. Tsilas, whose father was a judge, has a law degree from the University of Athens and practiced law in Athens. She then served as Senior Legal Specialist in the Law Library of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, performing comparative legal work and writing a number of legal studies published by the Law Library of Congress, one being the “Survey of the Greek Law of Inheritance”. Mrs. Tsilas has lived in New York since 2000 when her husband, the former Ambassador of Greece in Washington DC, was made Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center here.
Before the presentation of awards to Mrs. Tsilas and Ms. Kavouros, Dr. Olga Alexakos (who in her concluding remarks thanked the Pontian Association of Norwalk, CT, for coming to all AGAPW events), welcomed the guests and introduced the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, Constantina (Deana) Koulosousas, Esq. who read a New York State Assembly Citation and New York State Assembly member Aravella Simotas and a New York State Assembly Merit Award to Penelope Tsilas from Nicole Malliotakis, respectively, and Consuls General Koula Sophianou and Georgios Iliopoulos addressed the guests.
Consul General Iliopoulos said that in the few weeks he has been in New York he has “realized and appreciated the professional organizations like AGAPW that promote, efficiently and successfully, networking and exchange of experiences between the members of the most dynamic part of our omogenia. Therefore, the Greek Consulate gladly supports tonight’s event and in paying tribute to the life and achievements of this very special lady, Mrs. Penelope Tsilas, and at the same time offering considerable support to the dreams and the efforts of the deserving Greek American student through a generous scholarship.” Mr. Tsilas, he went on to say “is a devoted spouse, a successful mother, an especially cultivated person with many interests and concerns who supports her husband but also is active in the area of philanthropy,
spirituality, and the promotion of Hellenism, and is worthy of all our respect and admiration. Permit me to congratulate Mrs. Tsilas and her receipt of this award from the bottom of my heart, and the recipient of the scholarship. I hope that she will draw inspiration from the example of Mr. Tsilas’ life for the fulfillment of her objectives.”
Nicos L. Tsilas, saying that he could not express how happy he was to be at the celebration, began his recollections of his mother’s achievements, both professional and personal, by remembering that his grandmother had said, “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are. Your friends shape who you are, but a more appropriate observation, particularly for men, would be: ‘Tell me who the women are in your life, and I’ll tell you who you are”, said Tsilas, and the audience broke into applause. Coming to this event meant that he would have to forego business meetings in the state of Washington, and his colleagues were impressed, said Tsilas. “They said ‘you must really love your mom. She must be very special to you’. I said, ‘yes, indeed, she’s very special, and we have a unique relationship’”.
He went on to name some of his mother’s qualities, and his sister Vicky showed emotion. “Compassionate, courageous, strong sense of right and wrong, unquestioning religious faith, driven, interesting, and, yes…funny, loving, loyal–I think she has lived up to Penelope, Odysseus’ wife—and, in one word: our hero. Those are the words my sister Vicky and I use to describe our mother. She’s been a mentor, a friend. She’s picked us up when we’ve stumbled and she’s inspired us,” said Tsilas, who thanked her for having stood by his side “as no one else has” in his life, supporting him in his endeavors and in major decisions regarding his career and marriage. Tsilas told how his mother had taken over responsibility of her sister’s two daughters when her sister died, raising them as her own, and how became the godmother of two Albanian siblings of Greek descent, essentially adopting them, in the village of Marathon against the advice of villagers, including the priest, her actions sending a message against social discrimination.
In a speech of eloquent brevity Mrs. Tsilas addressed Consul General Sophianou first, as hostess of the event, Consul General Iliopoulos, Olga Alexakos, and the colleagues of AGAPW, thanked Aphrodite Navab for her good words and AGAPW “for the distinctions that so gracefully and so generously” were given her. She went on to express thoughts that reflected the life view, which motivated the accomplishments for which she is recognized. “I accept this distinction not on my behalf, but as a representative of all of you, because I believe that my life is nothing but the story of all of you…of every woman that strives, under adverse conditions, to meet complicated and often conflicting demands and expectations. Nowadays, as Aphrodite mentioned, women in the society we are lucky to live in, became equal partners and citizens. However, nobody can deny that this historic achievement has come only through sustained efforts, solidarity, and many sacrifices. We have come a long way, but there is still much to be accomplished so that women’s vital role is further enhanced, reached, recognized, and totally facilitated.” It is for this reason that the endeavors of AGAPW are so meaningful, she said, and why all should be actively engaged in achieving the goals of AGAPW, which are to expand career opportunities and promote community and leadership building among Greek-American professional women by forging collaborations and establishing partnerships with other organizations inside and outside the Greek-American community. “I am proud to be a member of this organization, and inspired by each and every one of its members. They are all amazing women”, she said, naming a few in the front rows. “Koula Sophianou, who is a big supporter of every good effort in the city, Marcella Mitsialis, the wife of our ambassador to the UN, who is herself an ambassador of good will, and, of course, Olga Alexakos, the founder of AGAPW, who is so precious to our common endeavors.”
The four performances and recitations that followed the awards ceremony were a bittersweet testament to the Greek soul and female sensibility. They were a humorous yet touching one-act play “Χελιδονοφωλιά” (Swallow’s Nest) by Vasiliki Tsanaktsidou–perfectly performed by Tsanaktsidou and Martha Tompoulidou– which takes place on a transatlantic flight from Greece to New York and through its theme of the destruction of swallow’s nests in a village is an allegory for the loss of homeland and displacement, forced or voluntary. Flora Kirou, who expressed the hope that Cyprus will one day be free before she began, sang “Χρυσοπράσινο Φύλλο” (Leaf of Gold and Green) by Mikis Theodorakis and Marios Toka, and “I Dreamed a Dream”, by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Ms. Tsanaktsidou and Ms. Tompoulidou each read an affecting poem: Nikiforos Vrettakos’ “Λιομαζώχτρα” (The Olive Picker) and “Γυναίκα” (Woman), written by a supporter of AGAPW, in that order.
In a moving concluding statement, Consul General Sophianou expressed that she wished to share her thoughts about Cyprus, the terrible fact of the uprooting of Greek Cypriots–of which she was one–from their homes and the loss of everything they had, in Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Ms. Sophianou asked the guests to look at the painting on permanent display on the first floor of the Cyprus House, saying, ”It was painted in 1974, and our hearts are still there.”
Noting that she was inspired to name her own daughter, Penelope, after her mother, Vicky Tsilas spoke to the GN about her mother, saying, “She is an exceptional woman. She inspired me to become a lawyer, as she is herself, but also to contribute back; she inspired me to do many pro bono services for the legal community.” AGAPW has accomplished a great deal in the scant two years of its existence, she said, “This is a really special occasion. There are many exceptional women, and I think women are not honored enough, as they should be.”
The AGAPW honor to Penelope Tsilas–with whom he has been for almost 50 years–“means the world” to him, said Ambassador Tsilas. “Whatever was said about Penny tonight was so accurate. She has been a great professional, a great wife, a great mother, and a great social being, so I’m very happy. It’s good that she was praised in front of friends and the community about which she cares so much. Then came a supreme compliment: “Somebody asked me how many years we have been together,” Tsilas said, “and I replied, ‘not enough’”.
Edited Excerpt from Dr. Aphrodite Désirée Navab’s Introduction of Penelope Tsilas
Mrs. Tsilas practiced law between 1963-1968 in Athens and worked at the Hellenic Ministry of Agriculture. From 1975-79 she served as Senior Legal Specialist in the Law Library of the Library of Congress in Washington DC. From 1981-1998 Mrs. Tsilas was active in many volunteer projects offering assistance to children’s hospitals and other humanitarian institutions in France, South Africa, Greece and the USA. Throughout the years, apart from working as an international legal consultant in law firms, she organized countless major fundraising events for charitable organizations. Just to name a few that she was involved with in Washington DC: Meridian House, The Washington Opera House, The Kennedy Center, Arts for Aging, Special Arts, Race for the Cure, a senior citizens home, amongst several other initiatives. In NYC, she has been actively involved with fundraising and support of not only Greek American non-profit organizations such as HANAC and Philoptochos, but also international ones such as the UN Women For Peace and the International Women’s Forum, as well as the distinguished Network 20/20 organization which helps prepare rising and established leaders in the U.S. to participate meaningfully in the global public policy debate, through lectures and briefings here and field research projects abroad.