John M. Paitakes, Ph. D Special to the Hellenic News
Introduction: As a Greek American I felt it was important to share my biographical information as to how Greece was born in me. Many other Greek Americans may have followed similar paths.
I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey. My father was born in Greece in a small village, Vafe, not far from Chania, Crete. My mother was born in Hiawathia, Utah of Greek parents who emigrated from Kefala, Crete, also a small village in close proximity to Chania. My dad entered the United States through Ellis Island when he was ten years old in 1919. His father came first with his three sons to get settled prior to his wife coming a short time later. They settled in New Brunswick, New Jersey where they had relatives. Dad registered for school and began his education in the local school system. Unfortunately, he had to withdraw from school upon his 16th birthday to help the family address living expenses. He worked in the diner and restaurant business as a waiter, busboy, dishwasher and any other assigned job. When he was in his mid-twenties, he met a Greek American woman, and after a short courtship they were married. They started a family and dad realized that to support a wife and children in addition to helping his parents, he would have to be making more money. He met another man of Greek descent who was also in a similar position and they formed a partnership and purchased the Spinning Wheel Diner, Restaurant and Cocktail lounge in New Brunswick.
When Greeks and others from different cultures and countries came to the United States, it appears that they assimilated in three different ways. Some felt that the best way to adjust to this new country was to learn to speak and follow the new country ways as much as possible and not require their children to continue using their cultural country’s language. Other groups of emigrants wanted to maintain as much as possible of their country’s customs, language and association with others from their home country and instilled this in their children. Examples of this were “Greek town in Utah”, “Little Italy in New York City”, Astoria in New York City and other similar ethnic areas in the United States. The third way of assimilating was to adopt as much as possible of the new country’s language and customs but still maintaining a strong connection with their homeland. Their philosophy was to retain the best of both worlds. As a youth growing up, my parents followed this model and I was happy to have friends and activities offered by both cultures and countries.
As a youth growing up, my family attended the St. George Greek Orthodox church in Piscataway, New Jersey. In fact, my dad was one of the founding fathers of that church, then located in Highland Park, New Jersey. At age twelve, I began attending Greek school which was located in a home next to the church. This was two days a week after “American” school. This was a great learning experience enhancing my reading and writing in Greek. However, at times I resented attending Greek school since most of my non-Greek friends had more play time after school than I did. In retrospect, I am happy my parents made me attend. I attended Greek school for four years than withdrew due to school and work requirements. I also was in the high school band and worked as a paperboy delivering the local paper to residences.
Another significant influence on my personal development was, at that time, the formation of the first Boy Scout troop organized by the Greek community. A school teacher in the community, Chris Gussis, had volunteered to organize the chapter and also to be the Scout Master. The first group of members was comprised of 14, mostly Greek Americans, aged 12-18. This organization developed a strong bond of fellowship among Greek American youth. The troop incorporated the theme of service to the community members and others. The group, fathered by the church, also assisted the community during events. Boy Scout members could secure badges in first aid, swimming, community service and in many other areas. Many of the members have become life-long friends.
Another significant influence in developing my Hellenism, was joining the organization “Sons of Pericles”. This youth organization (ages 16-21) is an international brotherhood dedicated to the preservation of Hellenism. The order also espouses philanthropy, civic responsibility, athletics, education and individual excellence. My involvement enhanced my knowledge of the services this Greek cultural organization offered. In addition, it broadened my friendship with other youth of Greek heritage locally and on a state level.
As an adult, I became a member of the AHEPA, (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Organization). This organization promoted Hellenic ideals of education, philanthropy, civic responsibility, family and individual excellence through community service. I recently received my 35 year pin as a member of this great organization.
When I reached my fifteenth birthday, my father felt it was the right time to begin working in the diner-restaurant business. I began working as a cashier initially after school and on week-ends. I also waited on tables, was a busboy cleaning tables and any other assigned duties. In addition to receiving a paycheck, I found it to be interesting working and meeting customers from various backgrounds, cultures, and work environments. This also enhanced my Greek speech and vocabulary as much of the kitchen help were of Greek descent and spoke mostly Greek. I became quite fluent in the conversational aspect. In addition, I was becoming more knowledgeable in the food industry business. When I turned seventeen, I became the night manager full time, during summer vacations. This continued into my college years and full time after college graduation for one year. I managed personnel, most who were older than I was. It was a learning process in addition to enhancing my Greek vocabulary. My human relations skills were greatly enhanced by supervising a staff of fifty. The customer base was also quite diversified which honed my human relations skills. As I reflect back on my several careers, I attribute much of my success dealing with various personnel I interacted within the service industry.
After working in the diner restaurant setting, I received an offer from the Somerset County Courts of New Jersey as a Probation Officer. This was an interesting experience supervising juvenile and adult offenders, My work experience in the food service field was helpful as in that environment, I experienced working with many persons from various cultures and personalities. I worked for the courts for 29 years rising through the ranks to Assistant Vicinage Chief Probation Officer for three counties, Somerset, Hunterdon &Warren. During my tenure working for the courts, I coordinated and led a group of criminal justice professionals to Athens, Greece to review and understand their criminal justice system. This was a most interesting and great learning experience in reviewing the Greek criminal justice system to include courts, corrections and law enforcement. It also enhanced my Greek legal vocabulary and speech.
Upon completing twenty nine years with the Somerset County Courts I took an early retirement as I was offered a one-year contract with Seton Hall University, located in South Orange New Jersey. I taught in the Public Administration & Criminal Justice Department. This one-year contract turned into twenty years teaching at this great university. I taught twenty two different courses in Public administration and criminal justice and rose to the position of Senior Faculty Associate. In addition to my teaching and mentoring of students, I created the first Hellenic Students Club at the University. This was a small contingent of Greek-American students who enhanced their Greek culture on campus by hosting events related to Hellenism. It also provided awareness of the Greek culture to university students.
I was planning to continue working at Seton Hall University until my retirement when I received a Governors appointment to the New State Parole Board. This was a six year appointment to serve as one of only fourteen members with the authority to serve as hearing officers deciding who qualifies for parole from a correctional institution. I was honored to receive this position for the state. I retired from the Board in 2023 and am presently an independent Criminal Justice Consultant.
Over the last fifty years my wife and I have traveled to Greece over a dozen times. I have over fifteen cousins primarily from Crete, who I remain in contact with even when in the states. Although my wife is not Greek, she loves the Greek culture and customs. Her background is Slovak and Hungarian. When we travel to Greece I try and speak Greek as much as possible in spite of the fact that presently a large percent of the population speaks English. By speaking in Greek it enhances my Greek vocabulary. It’s a learning experience I benefit from every time I visit. One of my goals early on our travels to Greece, was to take the entire family to Crete to see where my father was from and meet some of our relatives. Approximately five years ago my wife and I were able to take our family (minus my four year old grandson who was not born at that time). This included my wife and I, my oldest daughter and her husband and her three daughters and my youngest daughter and her husband. This was a great experience for our entire family. My daughters and granddaughters ask every year “when are we going to go again?” I hope we can do this again.
I was honored several years ago, by the Hermes Expo Committee of the Hellenic News of America, to receive the Hermes Award for my outstanding performance and success as a Professor of Criminal Justice. I am most humbled by this honor.
I am hopeful that perhaps my biographical summary how Greece was born in me can assist other Greek Americans to continue to embrace both countries, cultures, and languages. Learning is a life-long journey.