NEW YORK – One of Manhattan’s most enchanting spaces was filled with appreciation, inspiration, and fellowship on April 30 when the American Community Schools (ACS) Athens hosted its first Alumni Awards Dinner at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park.
Guests who learned about the school for the first time that day marveled at the affection among alumni and faculty for the Halandri-based school and for one another that was reflected in conversation at tables and on the video screens. A video and photo montage highlighted special moments – from its 1945 founding through the past 12 years under the presidency of Dr. Stefanos Gialamas – of the distinguished PreK-12 school based on American principles and whose language of instruction is English.
Pride was also the order of the day as two beloved alumni were honored. Dr. Scott Parazynski, a member of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, received the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Nick Karambelas, Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees in the USA.
Dr. Anna Kaltsas, an infectious disease specialist with teaching appointments at Weill Cornell Medical College and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was presented the Emerging Young Leader Award by Timothy Ananidiadis, Vice Chairman of the Board in Greece.
One of the highlights was a moving keynote address by George Logothetis, Chairman and CEO Libra Group, the international conglomerate whose website leads with words that also reflect ACS Athens’ mission: “Responsible. Thoughtful. Global.”
Emcee Yanna Darilis, President and Managing Partner of New Greek TV, set the tone as she moved the tasteful program forward with enthusiasm and grace. There was humor too. Suheil Sabbagh, Chairman of the ACS Athens Board of Trustees, welcomed the guests and declared “ACS has attained such heights that “the sky is the limit now…thanks to the leadership of Dr. Gialamas – and my guidance,” evoking applause and laughter.
During his remarks Gialamas noted that “ACS Athens today is a different institution from what many of you remember. There are students from 62 nationalities. Our vision over the last ten years is to develop tomorrow’s leaders with Ethos – to serve humanity. We believe there is no economic crisis, but what is there is an ethical crisis. Today more than ever universal principles and values are being challenged,” and he declared “tonight we couldn’t have a better example of a Leaders with Ethos serving humanity than Mr. George Logothetis.”
The progress ACS Athens has made under Gialamas did not come easily, he said, “because you have to leave the comfort zone of preaching and move into the uncomfortable zone of doing.” He credited “a very open minded and supportive Board of Trustees.”
He took a moment to acknowledge “key people who made “quite a difference over these past 12 years and helped him to make a difference, citing Dr. Peggy Pelonis, Dean of Student Affairs; Steve Medeiros, Academic Dean; Chris Perakis; Cathy Makropoulos, former elementary school principal; Annie Constantinides, Director of Athletics; and Helen Maravegias, Executive Assistant to the President. He also thanked Darilis for “for making this evening so wonderful.”
The guests were delighted when Gialamas asked Tony Antonopoulos, who was graduated in 1960, to rise, and they applauded loudly when he said “I met George Logothetis for the first time today…and because he is so kind I did not need to twist his arm and he promised he will be a commencement speaker.”
The heart of the evening was the presentation of the alumni Awards. Timothy Ananiadis, who is also General Manager of the Grand Bretagne and King George hotels in Athens, thanked Gialamas, faculty and staff on behalf of the Board before introducing Kaltsas.
“I am very humbled to be the first recipient of this award” Kaltsas said with emotion, and first thanked her parents – who beamed with pride as they looked on – for the way they raised her and her brother and “for working hard to send us to ACS.”
“I’m a full-blown product of ACS Athens from first to twelfth grade…The spark started there,” she said, adding that her love of learning was nurtured by her teachers. “It was my ACS teachers who provided me with the love, the patience, and the inspiration to pursue a career in medicine. There are so many that to name only a few tonight would be unfair to many others. And they all inspired me to be a better teacher myself, as I too struggle to be an inspiration to others.”
The compassion that was also nurtured at ACS Athens complemented her passion for learning, and she extended her thanks to her patients, from whom she learns every day as they battle cancer and other diseases.
Kaltsas concluded philosophically by noting “in the end we have five or six people who will remember us, but teachers have thousands of people who will remember them for the rest of their lives. I thank each and every one of mine.”
Nicholas Karambelas, an alumnus and Vice Chairman of the Board in the USA, began on a humorous note by wondering out loud how he came to be selected for the Board, evoking laughter among classmates when he said, “back in 1971 no one would have predicted this.”
Karambelas spotlighted the life and achievements of Dr. Parazynski (Class of ’79) who went on to attend Stanford University and Stanford Medical School and in 1992 was selected to join NASA’s astronaut corps.
Looking at the crowd that filled the landmark Boathouse, Parazynski, a physician and inventor whose life includes five shuttle missions, seven space walks and climbs to the summit of Mt. Everest, said “I have never been more proud to be an alumnus of ACS.”
Parazynski said, “I’m thrilled to be here – primarily to honor the teachers and staff who helped launch my career…these are legendary teachers who inspired and challenged me,” and then read off a long list of their names and sports coaches’ who enriched his life.
He acknowledged his parents, who were present, saying “They always supported me and were catalysts to my native curiosity.” He said of his wife, Meenakshi Wadhwa, “she looks like a super model but she is actually a world renowned planetary geologist and my best friend in the universe.”
He then sang the praises of Greece and spoke of how wonderful it was “coming of age in the cradle of civilization, from where I was able to travel around the world and interface with different cultures – it shaped all the interactions of my life,” and added “seeing the Earth from space has been a rare gift for me…ACS gave me the keys to the space shuttle and I am so grateful.”
Parazynski concluded by saying “There are so many reasons to be hopeful for the future, especially with institutions like ACS Athens, and in closing I gratefully accept this wonderful recognition on behalf of the teachers who enabled me to live out my boyhood dreams.”
While he did not study there, elements of Logothetis’ presentation reflected the spirit of ACS Athens and the lives of its alumni. He began by saying, “I am grateful to you, Dr. Gialamas, for all you and your staff do, for the positive impact on the lives of many, ACS Athens is an oasis of possibility and opportunities in a sea of economic crisis…a worthy blend of the best of Greece and America, a bridge between both countries that breeds socially conscious and virtuous young men and women.”
Logothetis made a fascinating connection between Aristeia – excellence, and deinopatheia, described as “the highest degree of suffering before death.” Aristeia had a moral dimension in ancient Greece, he said, “the ability to constantly inhale injustice – yet never waver from exhaling goodness and grace.”
The humanitarian response, despite their own suffering, of the Greeks today – especially young children – to the refugees, instantiates the connection.
“Maybe the purest form of aristeia” he said, “is simply, giving, listening, and showing compassion to those who ‘deinopathoun’ – the merger of two ancient Greek words in a modern way.”
Logothetis praised ACS Athens- staff and students alike – for being part of the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis by welcoming and educating unaccompanied refugee children. “Greece is on the front lines and ACS is on the front lines,” he said, “and I’m very proud of the work we do together, including the Libra Group’s Home Project which recently built five shelters in 120 days for 120 children.
He then began a story that seemed like merely an illustration of how today’s challenges are not new under the sun. “Fifty years ago a young boy arrived in Greece having grown up in Tanganyika …whose family fled as refugees from a ravaged, starved and destitute Greece in 1945.” He paused and noted: “Greek blood is refugee blood.”
“This young boy was sent to ACS – and it changed his destiny. He entered a world he never experienced – from seeing sliced bread, to drinking Coca Cola, to having teachers give credit to kids. – An occasional bravo does wonders to kids’ confidence,” he emphasized.
“That boy was my dad,” he said to prolonged applause.
“By the 1970s that same boy made something out of nothing. He built a shipping company…and what he saw and learned at ACS, he instilled into his family and his children.”
Logothetis praised Kaltsas and Parazynski for “living exemplary lives every day – thank you for your service to humanity.”
Darilis concluded the program by noting that with all its growth and attainments through the years, ACS Athens “remains a community school, a school that embraces others, and provides a place of belonging, often, a home far away from home. We hope you will continue to be a part of this journey,” and she thanked the event’s organizing committee, including Paola Bruno, Belina Korovessis, George Kantranzos, Helen Maravegias, Chris Perakis, Maria Sewell, and Dean Sirigos.
The evening before the dinner, Greek Consul General Dr. Konstantinos Koutras hosted a special reception for ACS Athens at the consulate that was an occasion for Gialamas and the Board of Trustees to honor three Americans who have presented commencement addresses at ACS Athens: Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis, President of the Boston Museum of Science, Dr. Edward Burger, President, Southwestern University, and Dr. Hank Cram – President of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools where ACS Athens is accredited.
Koutras said, “This is a wonderful event for a very important school that has raised educational standards of Greece. I congratulate ACS for taking the initiative to honor these important people, who become the best possible ambassadors of Greece in the USA. I learned today that all the Americans that we have met who have relationships with ACS adore Greece – and I congratulate ACS for that.”
“It was a wonderful element of the celebratory weekend to welcome important officials, presidents and provosts of universities from all over the USA who came to celebrate the success of ACS,” Gialamas said. “It is a wonderful honor for us that the Consul General had the great kindness to invite us to the consulate. I personally thank Dr. Koutras, who has the sensitivity for, and understanding of the importance of bringing leaders of American universities and institutions closer to Greece. “
ACS Athens takes pride in having doubled enrollment during the past 12 years, the growth of its scholarship program, its academic programs, which expanded in unique ways, including the development and implementation of an educational paradigm called Global Morfosis, and in its partnerships with universities in the US and Europe that have led to a plethora of collaborations and joint programs.
Darilis added her admiration when she informed the dinner guests that Sabbagh had financed ACS Athen’s new state-of-the-art Media Center.
Enrollment is currently underway for ACS Athen’s popular summer camp program. Information is available at acs.gr/summer-yc-home-2017.