Chesterton Tribune

Author Petrakis recounts tales of youth with Duneland Historical Society

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Life. Love. Imagination. Petrakis.

It was these elements that provided an evening of entertainment for more than 50 members of the Duneland Historical Society and the public at the Westchester Library Service Center last Thursday night.

The nimble, illuminating wit of Harry Mark Petrakis withers not, even as the local storyteller approaches his 90th year of life.

“A lifetime of memories makes a lifetime of stories,” said Petrakis, who has written 24 books, short story collections, and essays over the span of more than 50 years, some of which have been the basis for feature films.

When asked which work is his favorite, Petrakis replies “that question is like asking a parent if you have a favorite child.” Each work has its own unique factor, he said, for example the wild humor in “A Dream of Kings” and the historical research in his two works on the Greek War of Independence; “The Hour of the Bell” and “The Shepherds of Shadows,” which were published more than 30 years apart.

The evening’s lecture “The Storyteller’s Golden Wheel” will be one of his last, Petrakis announced. For 60 years, Petrakis has addressed different societies and colleges and the rigors of travel today are causing him to slow his pace. He said he will still travel locally to places like Chicago. He and his wife Diane have lived in Dune Acres for the past 44 years.

Petrakis shared a few poignant memories of his life on the road meeting students and being mistaken for “the man who wrote ‘Zorba the Greek’” (which, in reality, is Nikos Kazantzakis, who coincidentally emigrated from the same island in Greece as Petrakis’ parents).

Petrakis regaled the audience with many anecdotes from his youth including a time playing kick the can with kids from his Greek immigrant neighborhood in south Chicago during the years of the Great Depression. Petrakis vividly remembers freeing 19 teammates from the confines of the goalkeeper who, Petrakis said, “was a friend of mine until that day.”

It may just seem like a game to a layperson but Petrakis knew there was something more to it or he would not have remembered it so vividly after 70 years. “It was an unmatched moment of triumph,” Petrakis said and remarked he would never again recapture such a feeling.

One more favorite memory comes from a time when Petrakis was in the seventh grade. To paraphrase in a way that does no justice to how Petrakis tells it (the true version can be read in “Stelmark: A Family Recollection”): A young Petrakis forgot his lunch one day and the teacher asked him about its whereabouts. At that moment, his “imagination took flight” and, to keep from facing a disciplinary action, Petrakis fashioned a lie asserting he gave it to “ragged old man sitting in the gutter.” The teacher was so touched by the gesture that she had Petrakis repeat the story to the whole class. He made the lie even “juicer” the second time, he said.

“If an academy award would be given for lying, I would have won,” Petrakis said.

All the classmates, out of pity and admiration, doled out half their lunches to Petrakis “enough to equip a fruit stand” when his mother entered the room carrying the bagged lunch he forgot to take when he left for school.

What happened next was “an experience so terrible, I have blotted it from my mind,” said Petrakis.

Happier memories have stayed with Petrakis and ranking at the top of his list are the births of his three sons, publishing his first short story and later his first book, and making friends, “many of them now gone.”

Petrakis said he sums up his long life into one word – greatness. It comes from his parents who gave him an understanding of people in the Greek Orthodox culture and the value of loyalty. His taste for literature came at age 11, when he was sick in bed for two years with tuberculosis. The rest is history.

Close friend Pete Flenner, of Michigan City, said one impressive fact that Petrakis does not like to gloat about is being the recipient of the first Gabby Award for Arts and Culture in 2009. The awards program is held every year by the Greek American Community to recognize their members who have achieved excellence. Petrakis was picked from a total of five nominees who made a difference in the American culture’s 200-year history.

Petrakis has also received the Chicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg Award and was named one of the nation’s finest writers by The New York Times. Many of his stories focus on the experience of Greeks living in America. He said it takes him one and a half to three years to complete a novel.

“I was once a young storyteller and now I am old storyteller. I am grateful for that,” he said, prompting applause and a standing ovation from the audience.

Insull Trial reenactment next

Historical Society member Jim Jeselnick said the group will hold its next meeting on May 17 with a reenactment of the Samuel Insull trial which took place in 1934. Insull owned a number of railroads in the Chicago area including the South Shore. He was charged with abusing finances and found not guilty on all counts, having been defended by famed Chicago lawyer Floyd Thompson.

The cast will include Bob Welsh, Chuck Lukmann, Mike Harris and Thomas Webber.

In other announcements, Midge Rivers said there will be a dinner at Casa Del Roma Banquet Hall in Valparaiso on Sunday, May 20, starting at 5 p.m. for the 100th year anniversary of the Porter County Historical Society and encouraged those in the audience to come support the organization.

The Porter County Historical Society has traditionally overseen the Old Jail Museum in Valparaiso and Rivers invited Duneland Historical Society members to see the recent transformation the museum has undergone.

Running currently through July is the Tools of the Trade temporary exhibit.

The Westchester Township Historical Museum is also prepping its next display, the Mothers of Westchester Township, which opens the first week in May in time for Mother’s Day. Museum Curator Serena Sutliff said a slide show is being created for the exhibit featuring local mothers and asked for anyone wanting to submit a photo to contact the museum at (219)983-9715.

Each mother who visits the exhibit the weekend of Mother’s Day, May 12-13, will receive a pink carnation, Sutliff said.


Posted 4/23/2012