Reflections on the AHEPA 37th Biennial Salute Banquet
Can AHEPA remain relevant to future generations of Greek-Americans?
March 13, 2006
On March 10-12, 2006, AHEPA’s 37th Biennial Salute Weekend honoring retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes and Congressman Mike Bilarakis, marked by a gala evening emceed by George Stephanopoulos, may have been the biggest event the majority of the Greek-American community never learned about until it was over. As this was our first major AHEPA event, our perceptions about the organization, its goals, and its relevance to Greek-American young adults, were certainly influenced by perhaps the largest gathering of well-behaved Greek-Americans we had ever seen. The event left us cautiously optimistic that there is a place for our generation in AHEPA and that AHEPA and what it stands for deserves a commitment from us as well.
Many people we talked to during the evening were shocked that this was our first AHEPA event and that we had only joined a month ago. Growing up first generation in a DC area with plenty of recent Greek immigration, AHEPA didn’t appeal to our father or to us for different reasons. He rightly or wrongly perceived AHEPA as not doing enough for Greece and the lack of spoken Greek at the meetings didn’t agree with him either. (Also as a younger man at the time he shared the same perception of the organization that we ourselves held for most our lives of the members of the organization comprising the gerousia.) Still, he joined the organization around the time we were in high school and forced us to fill out the paperwork to apply for a coveted AHEPA scholarship. (He may have, in the process, inadvertently funded those same scholarships through poker losses to other members of The Order. More on the AHEPA scholarships later.) For us with Greek first and last names that hadn’t been through the Ellis Island Chopper, infused with a strong first-generation, Greek-speaking, foustanella-wearing pride, we saw the organization as a bunch of assimilatory sell-outs, who had lost their “Greekness” while trying to maintain some abstract form of Hellenism, whatever that was supposed to mean.
The two of us made a pact that we weren’t joining the organization until we were at least 30 years old, and somehow the powers that be at Chapter 438 found us shortly thereafter and we were finally initiated a month before our 31st birthday. We were told at our initiation that we were not to reveal the details of our initiation, but let’s just say the welts from the paddling have yet to subside, we’re not allowed to show you the branding, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over my newly discovered fear of blindfolds. Our generation hasn’t grown up with active membership in fraternal organizations, particularly those of us who considered ourselves too Greek to “go Greek” in college; all the pomp, circumstance, secret handshakes and greetings seem a little dated and counterintuitive to what AHEPA was meant to counteract in the first place. (More on the evil that necessitated the creation of AHEPA later.)
Finding information about this weekend was as secret as the initiation itself. Besides the events that took place on Friday afternoon that we hadn’t heard about, details on Friday night’s banquet, including time and place were hard to come by, particularly as confusion surrounded the identity of the hotel where the event was to take place. You say “Hilton” and “Greek event”, most Greeks in the area automatically think of the Capitol Hilton on 16th and K, the venue for numerous American Hellenic Institute events, and even a St. Constantine and Helen Dinner-Dance a few years ago. But this event was actually at the much more lavish Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue, just north of Dupont Circle. Those in the know told us the location was, “the Washington Hilton, you remember, the one where President Reagan was shot,” which did help much either, as we had no clue that Reagan was shot near Dupont Circle, since were only 6 when it happened.
Walking into the hotel and seeing the over 700 Greek-Americans in the hallway outside the grand ballroom, I was reminded of everything I loved about Greek events throughout my lifetime – a large anonymous crowd that surprisingly made you feel at home, with a dynamic energy and spirit amongst the homogenous faces. There was definitely a sense of family, a sense of belonging to a nobler group; the adherence to protocol and ceremony as the crowd took its seats and the program began reminded everyone in that room that they were continuing a great tradition.
The protocol and refinement of this event is seemingly atypical to most Greek-American affairs. The mile-long head table featured honorees, introducers of honorees, and introducers of introducers of honorees. There were no bouzouki or klarino here, simply a small jazz ensemble sticking to typical American fare – from “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to “New York, New York,” “Oklahoma,” and “Carolina in the Morning”. (Actually, they did play “Never on Sunday,” which had the audience clapping throughout the song.)
Meanwhile sitting on the outskirts of the congregation at Table 66, (which we jokingly dubbed the “kids table”, or the “table of single men under 40 without dates,”) coupled with being new to these proceedings, allowed for us to observe (without being observed) and comment (without interrupting) the multitude of speeches both before and after dinner. We learned and reacted to a great many things that were said throughout the evening, and the remainder of our thoughts here address some of the sentiments presented.
A great point was made of the circumstances surrounding the founding of AHEPA back in Atlanta in 1922. While we don’t remember hearing the word “racism” specifically used, Senator Sarbanes came close when he repeatedly referred to the “bigotry” that existed at the time of AHEPA’s founding that the organization was meant to combat. I believe I came more to the point when I discreetly folded my lily-white dinner napkin into a dunce-cappish hood, if you will, and showed it to my brother who knew exactly what wasn’t being said. Previous accounts of the AHEPA story we were told on AHEPA Sundays past in church spoke more openly of the evil of which we dare not speak, mostly for fear of the term being caught by Google and sending unsavory traffic our way. (AHEPA’s website notably doesn’t mention it either, maybe for the same reasons. If you’re reading this and still don’t know what we’re talking about, think “A Time to Kill” or how Forrest Gump got his name.) But over 80 years later, that kind of racism and bigotry really doesn’t exist against Greek-Americans anymore, and the assimilation that resulted is no longer needed for our safety and survival. (More on AHEPA’s continuing mission later.)
George Stephanopoulos not only served as emcee of the event but also as the most shining example of the power of the AHEPA Scholarship program, which annually gives over half a million dollars to deserving Greek-American high school students, usually $500 at a time. We joked with several AHEPAns afterwards who also had received the $500 award in their lifetime that back in Stephanopoulos’ time, $500 towards the cost of tuition actually meant something, and if receiving an AHEPA scholarship was such a springboard on the road of life, why weren’t we advising Presidents or at least hosting “This Week” on ABC on Sunday mornings. Scholarship money is great and can produce, as Senator Sarbanes referred to in a different context, “educated good-for-nothings,” but the real focus should be on mentoring these scholarship recipients after the scholarship money has been spent. What’s the point in giving money to students without tracking the return on investment to the Greek-American community and its causes?
The focus of the evening of course was to honor the retirements of Senator Sarbanes and Representative Bilirakis. Their collective retirement was offered as a cause for sadness and re-evaluation, as Greek-American representation in Congress will be deeply effected by their departure. Both men’s sons were on hand to offer hope of a continuing legacy as each is currently campaigning to enter the U.S. House of Representatives from their respective states. Legacy is a powerful asset that for once is in the hands of the Greek-American community. As it has proven throughout the years, it can be used to get qualified and even under-qualified individuals into the highest realm of public office, sometimes on name recognition alone. (Think Kennedy or Bush.) While both men seem well-suited and qualified to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, clearly John Sarbanes also has more of the “John-John” aura about him with the charisma and good looks that play well with today’s voters.
A large gathering of Greek-Americans in the shadow of the White House and the Capitol with a smattering of politicians in the audience can’t avoid the topic of the Cyprus issue, particularly in a time that has seen increased diplomatic efforts at solving the problem. Preaching to the choir at these events works only if it inspires those in the audience not represented by Greek-Americans or Philhellenes in Congress to ride their elected officials to attempt to persuade the President and the State Department to use the United States’ influence for positive change in the area. We were pleased to learn that AHEPA did take advantage of their Friday afternoon in our nation’s Capital to pay a visit to Congress to do just that.
As the evening wound to a close, a great optimism filled the room that signaled that somehow AHEPA had come out of hibernation with a renewed energy to refocus on its core mission now, and in the future. AHEPA’s various philanthropic ventures have been and will continue to be a staple of the organization. With its original mission of integrating Greeks into American society successfully accomplished, perhaps its future should focus on bringing the descendants of those Greek-Americans who assimilated so fully into American society back into the Greek-American fold. The organization has the established infrastructure to finally promote the ideals of Hellenism within the greater American society and put a Greek-American stamp on this country’s politics and culture. Of course our generation is uniquely poised to put our own stamp on AHEPA and to direct it through the start of its next 100 years, building on the hard work and results that the forefathers of the organization accomplished so many years ago. It is in this way that AHEPA is and can remain relevant for our generation and those to follow.