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