Oh! It was a most special night for the entire Greek American Community in early December of 2012. One of theirs had finally made it to the top of the ladder. After Dukakis and Tsongas – the third time was the charm for an American of Greek descent. This time it was for a favored son of the great State of New York.
The First Greek-American President of the USA
Anybody who was anybody in the Hellenic American world had packed the grand ballroom of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria. Red, white and blue bunting was the backdrop for this noisy and festive occasion. Each table was adorned with American and Greek flags. They contrasted sharply with the cassocks of the clergy, black tie outfits of the men, and muted yet very chic evening gowns of the ladies.
At the head table was the First Lady to be – Anastasia Papp with her four boys and one daughter and the First Mother to be – Eleftheria Papachristopoulos. Eleftheria was wearing her signature Majorca pearls complimenting a royal purple gown. The Archbishop of America was at the next table with all the Metropolitans of the nation in attendance. The officers of the AHEPA, Order of Saint Andrew, National Board of Philoptochos, (the Friends of the Poor Society), various political and fraternal organizations, dignitaries from Greece, and of course the top Greek American contributors from the Independent Party formed the inner circle.
All these high powered personalities were promised a preview of president – elect John Papp’s inaugural address. There was this tremendous electric buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air, and more smiles here than at a crocodile convention; more pounding of the back than could be expected for the winning team at the upcoming Super Bowl in January of 2013. Throughout the hall the repetitive shouts of “we did it, we finally did it,” was the mantra of the night. To be sure, those who had done the least were strutting around the ballroom most.
Every eye was riveted to the podium as Papp’s national campaign manager Robert Sweeney stood center stage as the band struck up the folk song that had become the campaign anthem – This Land is Your Land. Stretching his arms out wide and displaying the universal V for victory with two fingers of each hand, Sweeney quieted the gathering.
“Dear friends and supporters, this great day has finally arrived. A son of immigrant parents has proven that the American dream is attainable to one and all.” Mr. Sweeney smiled proudly as he continued; “President – elect John Papp doesn’t want or need a long introduction. He is determined to thank each and every one of you personally after a few brief remarks. So, without further ado I give you – your President and mine!”
A standing ovation greeted John Papp as he took over the podium with a firm handshake to Bob Sweeney. Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more idealized portrait of a President. His sharply defined face and hair graying at the temples along with his piercing blue eyes were intimidating and announced that here was a man accustomed to getting his way. John Papp surveyed the room until he was satisfied that all eyes were focused on him. He coughed several times to clear his throat before speaking.
“It has been a long and often difficult road to the White House, my dear friends. Who could have possibly thought that an American of Greek descent, born in the working class section of Flatbush, Brooklyn and raised along with two brothers by a young widowed mother could not only ascribe but achieve the highest elected office in the land?” There was the unbelievable silence of a large gathering of people with Greek blood in them being completely quiet as John Papp bowed his head as if in prayer before continuing. “It was my dearest mother, who ever since I could remember as a little boy telling me that I would grow up to become the President of the United States of America someday. Countless times throughout my four terms as Congressman and two terms as the Governor of New York, I have implored mom to explain how she knew with bedrock faith that this politician would eventually work in the Oval Office. Her reply never wavered – “at right the time I will reveal to you just how a mother knows her son’s destiny.”
“Well mom, you love the church, you love the Philoptochos. You love all the organizations that help Greek Americans.” In a voice mixed with pride and exasperation he finished. “I invited them all here tonight so that I could thank you for all you have done for me and so you could finally tell me just how you always knew I would become President of the United States of America.”
Anastasia looked at her mother - in - law and said, “Mama, you have got to go up there; he’s not asking for me. I can accept that the umbilical cord can be cut, but never severed; so go. I’m just as eager as he is to find out the answer to the question.”
“Anastasia, is my hair okay?”
“Mama, there’s not a gray hair out of place.”
Eleftheria Papachristopoulos rose with great difficulty, leaning on her silver handled cane. She silently thought, “Ha, yes all my hair is gray and if truth be known it wasn’t my son William the doctor or Thomas the computer magnate that had anything to do with it. It was Johnnie, all by himself that has given me trouble ever since he was a toddler.”
As she slowly made her way to the stage she mused about Johnnie’s latest antic. During the last months of the campaign, he started to relate to the crowds that because his family was so poor that as a kid William would buy a penny candy and suck on it for a while; then it was Thomas’s turn, and Johnnie would be the one to finish it. Pshaw! That was baloney; sure Johnnie had to wear hand me downs from his brothers but he always was neat and clean and there was always good food on the table. Johnnie had explained to her that the electorate expected a politician to embellish on their record or life experience. That didn’t sit well with Eleftheria, neither did his shortening of the family name so as not to sound too ethnic. “What was wrong with Papachristopoulos anyway?” She grumbled to herself. She didn’t notice the approving glances of the audience and the resounding ovation they gave her as she ever so slowly made her way to her son. She reflected more on Johnnie’s actions that made him so different from his brothers even at an early age.
Mr. Costas, the Sunday school teacher approached her after Church one day and said that he would try to speak loud and directly for Johnnie’s benefit because of his hearing problem. That had puzzled her until she found the transistor radio with the earplug in his room. He had poor Mr. Costas fooled into thinking he was wearing a hearing aid; actually Johnnie was listening to rock n’ roll music during Sunday school lessons.
Another time, Johnnie asked her to alter a pair of new pants. Johnnie was standing on the kitchen table as she worked on the woolen slacks. William happened by and remarked that he had a pair of pants just like them. Johnnie then asked her to hurry the task. Five minutes after he left for a date, William ran out of the bedroom with murder in his heart. They were the pants that he had paid for from his after school job at the drugstore.
When Johnnie was seventeen, Mr. Russo, the greengrocer threatened him with bodily harm because he suspected Johnnie of having relations with his daughter Anna Maria. Eleftheria felt it was true because Mr. Russo said that his daughter claimed that Johnnie would tell her that he burned for her like an Easter Candle, and that sounded just like him.
The only way out of that mess was for her to enlist Johnnie into the Army. He served during the height of the Vietnam War. She came to know the worry of the many times that she hadn’t heard from him for weeks on end and fearing the worst. Eventually, he did come home with a chest full of medals, and a permanent limp.
The passing of years have not changed her youngest son. Last month at her eighty-fifth birthday celebration Johnnie presented her with a gift box from Tiffany’s (NYSE: TIF). Johnnie with his usual fanfare elicited oohs and ahs from all the family members in attendance before placing it in her hands. Eleftheria wasn’t totally surprised to open the elegantly wrapped gift to discover not jewelry but three Milky Way candy bars. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh.
Eleftheria refused help for the steps to the stage. When she finally embraced her son, it was the classic picture of mother and child. The soon to be 45th President of America laid one hand on his mother’s shoulder, and with the other signaled the gathering to silence. When the proverbial pin dropping could be heard, he earnestly spoke.
“Mother, please finally reveal how you always knew I would one day become President of the United States!”
Eleftheria Papachristopoulos, with the sweetest haloed countenance extended her two hands and as if presenting and weighing the most precious of gifts replied clearly for all to hear. “It was the heft of your soiled diapers.” Turning to the audience but still smiling endearingly, she announced, “I now give you back the President – but always my child – my Johnnie.”
President – elect John Papp managed the frozen smile of a politician as he received a vigorous tug to his earlobe. He watched in silent awe as his mother left the stage triumphantly. Eleftheria practically skipped down the stairs as the cheering now mixed with laughter resumed even louder than before.
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