By David Bjorkgren, Senior Editor
Special to the Hellenic News of America
Mariyana Spyropoulos honors her father’s legacy with a mission to help the environment and the Chicago area community.
The daughter of late businessman and philanthropist Theodore Spyropoulos, Mariyana Spyropoulos is a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. The agency oversees wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County.
Her role is critical to protect the Chicago area’s water environment. “We have 20 percent of the world’s freshwater in our backyard,” she points out.
Back in the 1800s, Chicago dumped its waste in the Chicago River, which ran into Lake Michigan and polluted the drinking water. The MWRD has changed all that, making drinking water safe. Today, the commissioners oversee a billion-dollar budget, and 2,000 employees.
Her decision to enter politics and serve on the MWRD grows out of her strong ties to her father.
Theodore Spyropoulos is recognized as a pillar of the Greek American community. He supported Greek culture and heritage and was no stranger to politics, civic duty or to the environment. His mission was to unite Greek-Americans, establish Hellenic studies and cultural centers in America and preserve Hellenic-American democratic ideals. He has served in numerous leadership roles in Greek-American organizations, including regional coordinator of North America of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad and as president of the Hellenic American National Council U.S.A.
He has also served as president and founder of The Spyropoulos Scholarship for Hellenic-American Students in the USA and Hellas, and as chairman of the Hermes Expo International.
“My father has been involved in politics and my grandfather’s been involved in politics in Greece. There really wasn’t much of a choice for me to be involved in politics,” Spyropoulos says.
She was appointed in 2009 to fill a vacancy on the MWRD board by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. She ran for the position again successfully in the February 2010 primary, placing first out of nine candidates. Spyropoulos was elected to the MWRD Board of Commissioners in 2010 and was president of the Board from 2015 to 2019. She won re-election in 2016, currently serving her second term.
In 2017, she received the Illinois Water Environment Association Public Official Award.
She loves to help people, to make a difference for the good. “As long as people will have me, I’ll continue that,” she says.
She traces her interest in the environment again to her father, who had an organization called “Plant Your Roots in Greece.” It was part of a reforestation effort in Greece, which gets hit with a lot of forest fires similar to California. His goal was to coordinate with the local municipalities and have volunteers do tree plantings to reforest the communities.
Spyropoulos’ environmental work leaned toward water.
“Just the fact that this agency is responsible for our drinking water really drew me to this agency and to my interest in the environment and the role it plays in our lives,” she says.
The District treats wastewater through seven treatment plants throughout Cook County, made up of the city of Chicago plus 125 surrounding suburbs. “That’s the equivalent of about 10 million people,” she says.
The agency also manages the Deep Tunnel Project, 109 miles of intersecting tunnels and three reservoirs. “We have built one of the largest reservoirs in the world and it will hold 10 billion gallons of water,” Spyropoulos says.
Deep Tunnel was envisioned in the 1960s as a way for the Chicago area to cope with its heavy rainfall and flooding problems. The system manages the overflow from Chicago’s 100-year-old sewer system so neighborhoods don’t flood.
Part of her job is to encourage residents to conserve water use and protect the area’s water resources. Another part is to go to Washington every year to get funding from Congress to help with the Deep Tunnel project. So far, funding has not been a problem. “Everyone is committed to infrastructure and reducing flooding,” she says.
One issue currently a worry for Spyropoulos is the excessive pharmaceuticals finding their way into our water supply.
“We have people taking more medications than probably at any time in our history,” she says. The days of telling patients to flush expired medicines down the toilet are gone. Those medicines are harmful to fish and plant life, and ultimately to us. These days, people should dispose of medicines at places where they can be properly disposed of, or thrown in the garbage, not down the drain.
She’s also concerned about the rise of plastics pollution in the water supply. Microbeads, plastic pieces smaller than 1 mm, are being consumed by fish, which we then consume. She’d like to see Microbeads banned.
“When it comes to the environment, you can’t look at anything in isolation. Everything is connected,” she says.
Spyropoulos continues to look ahead. She’s planning to run for clerk of the circuit court in March, another county-wide office. “It’s an office that needs modernization in a technological era.”
As a Greek woman, Mariyana acknowledges there are challenges running for office. She’s always known that her Greek background made her different from many others around her. “I’m a proud daughter of immigrants,” she says.
Also, as a woman, she has to contend with an “old boy network.”
“Things are changing but not fast enough. Women are still not paid equal to men so we have more work to do!”
Her Greek values, including lots of hard work, helped her overcome those obstacles.
For nine years, she has been going out to the community, at events at least two to three times a week. She listens to their concerns and issues.
“The people appreciate that when you come out to their community and talk to them. I’m not afraid to do that. I enjoy that. I think that’s one of the best parts of being an elected official,” she says.
Her drive and dedication to serve the people come from a desire to make her parents proud.
“Like so many other immigrants my parents came here to look for opportunity and a better life. They sacrificed and worked hard to provide an education for me and to provide a better life for us as a family,” she says.
“I’m grateful for all of their sacrifice. It allowed me the privilege of being an elected official.”
Spyropoulos grew up near Chicago but not in a Greek community. Even so, her parents made sure she was raised with Hellenic values. She attended Greek school, learning Greek at the school of St. Nicholas Greek Church.
Her father comes from Kalavryta, Greece. Her mother, Erika, is German, and an artist.
They came to the United States for the opportunities. Ted Spyropoulos started in this country with nothing. “He worked really hard. He started a company that sold auto parts,” Mariyana says.
She appreciates what her Greek background has given her.
“Greeks have very strong personalities and are very committed to the greater good, and I certainly think that faith, a sense of family and community are huge advantages.”
Her father always encouraged her to become a lawyer, and so she did. “I was always interested in government and studying law, and practicing as an attorney has helped me as an elected official.”
Spyropoulos received her law degree from The John Marshall Law School and her MBA from the Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University Chicago. She also completed graduate work in American Government at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Before law school, she lived in London, England, where she worked at Nomura Research Institute, focusing on privatization efforts in Eastern European countries.
Prior to opening her own law practice, Spyropoulos worked as an Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney.
Spyropoulos started the Chicago Law Offices of Mariyana Spyropoulos & Associates in 2005. She is a member of the Chicago Bar Association, Illinois Bar Association, American Bar Association, Hellenic Bar Association, and the Women’s Bar Association.
She is the only attorney on the MWRD, bringing a unique legal and business perspective to the job.
Becoming a lawyer has helped her identify issues and apply critical thinking to problems that the agency or a community is having.
Outside of her commissioner and legal work, Spyropoulos has also embraced social and civic causes like her father. She has been active with Sankofa House, which helps families who suffer disadvantages in the juvenile justice system because of race or socio-economic status.
She’s a member of her father’s organization, Plant Your Roots in Greece; the Hellenic American Women’s Council, and the American Hellenic Institute. She’s also a member and former president (the first female one) of the Kalavryta Society, an organization dedicated to her father’s village in Greece.
Spyropoulos has a husband, Paul, and is very proud of her five nieces and nephews, and three Godchildren.
And she’s kept up her Greek heritage. Most recently, she took part in a Greek festival in Greektown. She had a chance to talk with people from the Greek community. She’s been to Greece many times and plans to visit many times in the future as she keeps in touch with relatives there.
She’s sensitive to the problem of keeping the Greek culture and community going, and to preserving Hellenic values, especially for future generations. Spyropoulos is grateful to the Hellenic News of America for its vigilance to keep the community connected and to the Kotrotsios family for the work they put in on behalf of the Greek community.
Running through it all is her father’s legacy.
“He was very passionate about Greece, about the values that he thought Greece represented and Diaspora.
His work touched people all over the world, in Greek communities in Russia, Asia, South America.
“After he passed away, I knew my dad had helped a lot of people but I had no idea how far his reach went and continues to go. People still reach out to me and tell me how much he has helped them throughout the years.”
And she thinks about her own role. “I know those are big shoes to fill. I don’t pretend to be able to do what he did.
“If I can do a fraction of what he did, I hope I can make him proud.”