Amherst Magazine

Greek Drama

To:    Amherst College Class of 1974
From:  Your Class Secretary
In Re: Events in Greece

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Friends, I assumed that our most notable contribution to public affairs this year was lawyer Mike Kahn ’74 of St. Louis sparring in federal court with lawyer Fred Sperling ’75 of Chicago over whether The Hangover Part II violated a tattoo artist’s copyright in using a face tattoo originally made for ex-boxer Mike Tyson.

But now comes the near collapse of the Greek economy and the fall of its government. We have impacted world events.

We thank classmate Antonis Samaras and his roommate George Papandreou, who entered with us but graduated with the Class of ’75. It is, after all, a frequent challenge extracting much for the newsletter, given our generally solid but uneventful middle-class lives, replete with the kids, the grandkids, the vacation in India or the recent Irish golfing trek with fraternity brothers.

Andonis, as we knew him and as he’s still listed in college records, just helped topple George as prime minister. Many of you apparently forgot that he was in Greek politics, too, as leader of a New Democracy Party dead set against all those austerity measures being jammed down George’s throat.

Theirs is a most curious political rivalry-cum-friendship between children of the Greek elite. It’s got a few psycho-emotional tinges of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich back in the day here. But, of course, Gingrich messed up, never knocked Clinton off his perch, as has Andonis with George, and now is a player in the presidential soap opera.

Our brush with George and Andonis came at what was still a small, all-male college in the bucolic enfolds of Western Massachusetts. Debates over going coed competed with rather homogenous opposition to the Vietnam War and protests at an Air Force base which got a few of us arrested.

Indeed, we could place Hanoi on a map easier than Athens and didn’t really care much about a topic of true concern to Andonis and George, namely the U.S.-backed military junta ruling their country. But they did stick out, even if co-joined to us in their self-confident, carefree and entitled ways.

It wasn’t just that George was a pretty fair guitar player who tended toward the blue jeans that were a de facto liberal arts uniform, or that Andonis was always so debonair and seemed to sleep in that crisp blue blazer.

“I remember them as impossibly handsome, mythical characters who lived on another planet, with the most gorgeous girls in the Pioneer Valley in their clique of aristocratic jet-setting friends,” says Michael Rogawski ’74, chair of the department of neurology at the University of California at Davis. “They would be sighted with unapproachable beauties, beaming as if posing in a Brooks Brothers catalogue shoot.”

They were dutiful students, like most of us, and in freshman year Philosophy 11, Andonis preferred reading Plato’s Republic in the original ancient Greek as others plodded through the English translation. He and the professor often discussed the inadequacy of the translation and, recalls Tom Quinn ’74, a cardiologist in Northampton, made the sessions a real “Welcome to Amherst and maybe you don’t belong here experience for me.”

After freshman year, Cully Wilcoxon, who is a cellist and former academic who lives in Devizes, Wiltshire, England, visited Andonis in Athens for a month and remembers both his magnanimity and a distinct political discretion.

Wilcoxon was a “naïve Southern boy” struck by the generosity and kindness of the Samaras family, which was led by Andonis’ prominent doctor father. In fact, Wilcoxon essentially used the family manse and servants as home base while he traveled the Peloponnesus. But there were reminders of larger realities that impacted Andonis and George in primal ways we couldn’t fully appreciate.

“It was the era of the Colonels and I was walking once with Andonis below the Acropolis when soldiers strolled towards us. He told me to speak loudly in English, to deflect attention,” recalls Wilcoxon in a note from England.

Gordon Wiltsie, a freshman-year hallmate of mine in James Hall and a renowned adventure photographer who lives in Bozeman, Mont., was Andonis’ sophomore roommate after each was initially jammed into a room with folks they didn’t like. They had complained about their housing situation and the dean of students arbitrarily tossed them together into a suddenly open suite for three, though the two had never previously met.

The room became the de facto meeting place for the college’s Greek community, including Andonis’ older brother, Alexandros ’71. Papandreou was part of the crew, his grandfather having been deposed as prime minister in the coup. “Periodically he would disappear to what we thought were secret meetings with the government in exile,” recalls Wiltsie.

Wiltsie partied hard, he concedes, with George, “who was very hip to the times. Andonis, on the other hand, toed the line more carefully about most things but women.”

The coup d’état came to an end in 1974, just as we were graduating and scattered to the winds to start our real lives. George and Andonis would begin climbing the political ladder a bit later but always remained accessible to old Amherst chums.

Indeed, your class secretary was traveling with President Bill Clinton once and had press pool duty at a state dinner in Athens. Andonis saw me on a riser outside the room, beckoned me in and soon waved over George. We trafficked in nostalgia until security buttonholed me just as Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton were entering, prompting Mrs. Clinton to raise her eyebrows and wonder, “Jim, what are you doing in here?”

Well, it’s those ties that bind, and that are manifested in other ways, apparently even in Boston parking lots. Rob Skovgaard ’74, a divorce lawyer in Stamford, Conn., was a chum of Andonis and learned pithy Greek phrases from him. He used several recently during a sharp disagreement in a Boston parking lot with the apparent Greek owner. “The guy was impressed, surprised and backed off,” says Rob.

For sure, there is a certain cognitive dissonance, as so many of us lead our comparatively tranquil lives and view the deadly serious events in Greece with their continent-wide ramifications. The dorm room joshing of yesteryear seems so far away, even quaint.

Like your class secretary, Rogawski is taken with how George looks pretty bald, pretty gray and distinctly beleaguered. “But, then, I guess most of us had hair that was in better shape in those days,” he says.
And most of us don’t quite know that sort of pressure or need to submit to international scrutiny, including outright ridicule and caricature.

Well, we truly wish George, Andonis and their families best wishes in trying times. And let’s hope that, when it came to what Sports Illustrated calls the Biggest Little Football Game in America, they were on the same page, rooting for our Lord Jeffs against Williams.

Oh, deadline for the next edition of the class notes is Feb. 23. If you can top Andonis and George as far as news, I’d be grateful! Cheers, Jim.

Warren, a former Chicago Tribune editor, now writes for the Chicago News Cooperative and The New York Times. This article is adapted from one that originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com and is reprinted with permission.