Physicist Vasilis Papanikolaou Cares about the Greek-American Community
BOSTON – All around the United States expatriates hailing from Greece and other Greek-Americans are hidden treasures, successful in their scientific and professional domains, and at the same time working quietly to support and promote the Greek-American community, about which they care with all their heart.
We met Basil Papanicolaou in the city of Nashua, New Hampshire, when he approached to inform us that he is a regular reader of the National Herald.
He was born in Athens many years ago, when it was a beautiful, quiet, and safe city, he said. After high school he studied in the Physics Department of the University of Athens and after graduation he continued his studies and research at the Democritus Research Institute, in Greece.
Asked what attracted him to physics he said that when he was a child, “I always had some curiosity about how things work in nature, like why a boat doesn’t sink, why ice floats in the water, what causes sparks, and why airplanes don’t fall out of the sky.” During high school and college his interest in science and physics grew even more.
In 1974 he received a scholarship for postgraduate studies in Solid State Physics at the Bartol Research Foundation, in Swarthmore, PA, now part of the Jefferson University of Philadelphia.
Bartol Research, located in a small serene town and on the amazing campus of Swarthmore College, specializes in research in solid-state physics and nuclear physics.
In class, Papanicolaou said, “we had about five or six students and I liked the friendly environment and direct interchange with the faculty. From day one the faculty and administration were welcoming, friendly, and accommodating. A Greek-American professor, Angelo Skalafuris, helped me and a couple of other Greek students to acclimate to our new environment. After postgraduate studies I moved to Boston, where I met the late professor Evangelos Anastasakis, undertaking some research at Northeastern University.”
“My first job, he continued, “was at Dialog Systems in Waltham, working on a voice recognition system with the analog technology in existence back in those years. A great friend to this day, Demetrios (Takis) Hatziyannis, introduced me to RCA systems in Burlington MA, where I worked as a software engineer with a team designing diagnostic systems for military vehicles.”
He then told of a “beautiful fall day… on my way to Boston from work, by mistake instead of heading south on the highway I took the northern direction. I drove by the city of Lowell where I knew there is a big Greek community and because the foliage was awesome, I decided to take a recreational ride even further north. That’s how I discovered Nashua. Driving through the city I decided that it was a nice place to live and soon I moved there. While still commuting to Burlington, I saw a building with the sign of ‘Sanders Associates’ behind trees on the highway and decided to take a look at their next open house. I was hired after a short interview, and I spent most of my professional career there in engineering and management positions working numerous projects. Sanders later became Lockheed Sanders and then was acquired by BAE Systems, as it exists today. It is a defense company focusing on the design and manufacturing of countermeasure systems for the military and Air Force.”
He continued, saying that, “on my first day at work, after the introductions, I stepped into my office where they already had my nameplate. It took only a few minutes before a head popped in and asked ‘Ellinas ise? – Are you Greek?’ It was Jim Coidakis, a Greek employee there with whom I carried on a conversation for quite a few minutes. The word spread and a few minutes later Charles Juris stopped by to say hello and welcome. These were the first Greeks I met at work and of course, later I met Angelo Chouramanis, who made sure my timecard was always up to date.”
At Saint Philip church he met Father Soterios Alexopoulos. “He enrolled me in the parish registry. In the following weeks I met several members of the community and started participating in the parish activities.”
Asked how the Community has changed since he came to America as a postgraduate student, he replied that, “I see the Greek-Americans assimilating more generation after generation. Their quality of life and living conditions improve; more people get higher education and become productive and essential members of American Society. On the negative side, I see the cohesiveness of the Greek-American Community weakening and moving away from Greek culture, language, traditions, and the Orthodox Church, notwithstanding the fact that there still exists a hard core of Omogenia, proud members, holding the flame aloft and maintaining our values.”
When asked what needs to be done, he said, “we need leaders and proponents of the Hellenic culture to stand up and work towards maintaining our historical values. The family also plays important role; parents should introduce, cultivate, and daily encourage their children to participate in activities reflecting our values. The communities try with Sunday school and Greek schools, but these efforts also are losing support.”
He added that “in everyday life we should remember where we come from and that we are part of a great heritage that has lasted for centuries. For example, I observe second and third generation Hispanics and Asians and their children maintaining their cultural identity and speaking at home and among themselves their language without the children having any difficulty at school with the English language. Homeland Greece also should support [our efforts] by providing educators and material even to smaller communities, including online educational and cultural programs.”
Papanicolaou is an active member of the Saint Philip parish and a member of AHEPA Chapter 35, where he served as president for many years. Today he is retired, living in Nashua, and visiting Greece almost annually. His two children, on their own initiative, obtained Greek citizenship and his two granddaughters, with the strong support and encouragement of their parents, are taking lessons at the Greeks School of Plato, in Brooklyn, NY.