Newly elected Order of AHEPA Supreme President Ike Gulas is visiting Washington for a series of contacts with administration officials, Congressional leaders and the Executive Board of his own organization, which is the largest Hellenic heritage group in the United States.
His visit to our nation’s capital was anxiously awaited by several quarters since his elevation to AHEPA’s highest office, in July. Many of the individuals who deal with Hellenic issues wanted to meet with Mr. Gulas in order to get an early indication of the direction he would take AHEPA over the next year.
While in Washington Mr. Gulas was also a studio guest of a “Voice of America” radio program, through which we learned a lot about his family, his hometown, the Hellenic communities in the South, where the new AHEPA leader comes from, and the importance he attaches to strong bonds between the members of his organization and the country of their ancestors.
Following is the text of the interview Mr. Gulas granted to VOA.
Mr. Bistis: First of all Mr. Gulas let me congratulate you for your election as the new International President of AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. How does it feel to be at the helm of the largest Hellenic heritage group in the United States and the Western Hemisphere in general?
Mr. Gulas: I am humbled that I was elected to be the Supreme President of the Order of AHEPA. It is a great honor, which the members have bestowed upon me and I only hope that I can support their confidence in the decision to elect me and do the job that I feel I can do for the Order of AHEPA.
Mr. Bistis: In addition to their confidence in you the members of AHEPA also placed a lot of hopes on your election. One of those members is your father who has been an AHEPAN for many years. What were his sentiments at the moment when the announcement came that you were chosen by the large membership to lead this organization for the next 12 months?
Mr. Gulas: He was ecstatic. I had the honor of having my father at the Convention with me. He is 83 years old and will be 84 in a couple of months. He is the person I most want to please in my career and in the choices I make in my life, because I always looked up to him. He has been a hard workingman, a dedicated family man, a dedicated churchman and a dedicated AHEPAN. It was an honor to have him there. In fact when I was sworn in he participated in the initiation and it was actually a very touching moment for me.
Mr. Bistis: As I understand it Mr. Gulas you are from the South. Tell a little bit about the Greeks who live in that beautiful part of our country. How many are they, what do they do, how proud are they of their Hellenic roots?
Mr. Gulas: When you say from the South, I am from the Deep South. I am from Alabama. We are like all the other Greek-Americans except we talk funny. We have an accent. Where I am from, in Birmingham, we have one church in our community. It is the largest church in the State of Alabama. We have 450 families, which attend our church, and we are very active in the community. We have a lot of second generation Greek-Americans and a lot of converts as well, a lot of interfaith marriages in our church. We keep our Hellenic values at the forefront through the work that we do in our community, feed the homeless through the church and AHEPA as well. We did a senior citizen housing project several years ago in Birmingham and we have one of the largest festivals in the city, which the whole city looks forward to and participated in. The Greek-Americans in all the other Southern States, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina are also very active in their communities.
Mr. Bistis: We should not here that AHEPA has a long history in the South. This is where it was establishes many years ago, right?
Mr. Gulas: It was established in Atlanta, Georgia, about 120 miles from my hometown, and its main purpose was to help the Greek immigrants overcome racism at the time. This is how AHEPA was formed.
Mr. Bistis: …and the first Greek-American church was nearby, in New Orleans. I visited it a couple of years ago when we had the storm, Hurricane Katrina hitting that city. This beautiful church is now restored and fully functional thanks to the efforts of AHEPA and many others who contributed to the restoration of the church. Now, let us turn back to AHEPA. Following your elevation to its highest office you said that you aspire to do a great deal to promote the organization. What is it that you have in mind? What plans would you like to implement in order to boost AHEPA’s capabilities and help it reach new levels of greatness?
Mr. Gulas: First of all George I would like to take the values that have been instilled in me by my parents, such as my father we spoke of earlier. One of these values is public service and service to your community. AHEPA does great things for the community but I think we can do more and not just for our Greek American community but our community at large. This would elevate AHEPA’s visibility both on the national front and at an international level. I hope that through some of the programs and initiatives, which I plan to promote to the chapters, we can do that. One of the other issues that I have is membership. I think we should solicit more participation from the young Greek-American professionals and business people to get involved.
Mr. Bistis: Actually this is one of the points that has also been raised by many Greek-American lawmakers, the need to attract the attention and the active participation of the new generation of the Greek-Americans. How do you intend to tap on the energy and resourcefulness of our ethnic community?
Mr. Gulas: As you know, we are one of the most educated sectors of the population and I think we need to do that through professional associations. One of the goals and aspirations I have this year is to create an AHEPA Bar Association, which will encompass the lawyers around the country under one umbrella. There are several Hellenic bar associations but we have no national Bar Association involving Greek-American lawyers like myself. I would also like to do the same with the other professions, dentists, doctors, CPAs, etc. I think by offering these young Greek-American professionals an avenue where they can network and meet other Greek-Americans, like themselves, it is an invaluable service and something I would like to promote greatly. The other think is to reach out to the youth in our community and sponsor programs for them, soccer tournaments, soccer teams, basketball teams, all kinds of sports and cultural activities that would get the young Greek-Americans involved.
Mr. Bistis: You your plans include Greece in any way? Are you thinking of visiting the country of your family roots at anytime during your tenure as President?
Mr. Gulas: Yes, absolutely. This is a huge year for the Order of AHEPA because we are having our 2008 Supreme Convention in Athens, from July 1st to July 7th. The Convention in Athens is an opportunity for us to promote Hellas and get our people to travel and visit Greece. For some of our members this would be the first time that they would be in Greece. I am visiting Greece at the end of September through the 1st of October with my Executive Director and a small delegation to go meet with the government officials in Athens, Thessaloniki and Cyprus. At that time we hope to travel to the Patriarchate as well.
Mr. Bistis: Well, Mr. Gulas, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. I can see now why all the delegates at the Convention in Denver were so excited after they elected you as Supreme President. I wish you all the very best in the year to come and nothing but good things to hear in the future about your organization. Again, all the best to you.
Mr. Gulas: Thank you very much George.