Chesterton Tribune

Harry Petrakis shares his story

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Very few community theater actors have had the privilege of being counseled by the author of the play in which they are acting. However, the cast of “Love Stories” at the 4th Street Theater, not only is being counseled by the author, they are being counseled by a world renowned author.

Harry Mark Petrakis, of Dune Acres, has been sharing his insights with the cast and assisting director Sandy Assarian with the four stories in “Love Stories,” which opens Friday night.

The four short stories are based on people and events he has known. They reflect his Greek heritage as do all of his stories, but, their themes are universal.

Born in St. Louis, Mo., Petrakis is the son of a Greek Orthodox Priest who came to this country in 1916 from Crete. Although he was not yet born when his parents arrived, he vividly retells the story they told him.

Apprehensive about the journey to the United States and about the voyage, he says his mother was reassured when she saw the Statue of Liberty.

“I felt grateful she was a woman,” my mother said of the Statue of Liberty. “I felt she would understand a woman’s heart.’”

Nevertheless, the family was detained at Ellis Island. The representative from the parish, who would escort them to their new home, hadn’t arrived. The next morning his father looked again at the Statue of Liberty and saw her as “a spiritual incarnation of some ancient beneficent goddess, sent to console him in his anguish, reassuring him that a fortuitous destiny would prevail. Later that morning the escort arrived,” Petrakis says.

He paints the picture of a group of Greek immigrants from Crete, working in Price, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City. The Greek community of coal miners built a Church, but did not have a priest. They were elated when they learned they would be getting a priest from Crete.

“They fired guns for a thunderous welcome for the coming of the priest,” Petrakis says.

“Some kissed the hem of my mother’s white lace dress... Men cried,” he continues recalling the history his parents handed down to him.

The priest and his family were moved from Utah to Missouri and finally to Chicago, the city Petrakis associates with “home.” His father’s church was on South Michigan and 61st Street. He is one of six siblings, only two of whom survive.

The path to becoming a writer, he says, was begun when he contracted tuberculosis as a child.

“I was a voracious reader. My brother used to buy me books. I loved adventure stories. Jack London was one of my favorite authors. I loved the way he used words. The stories stimulated my imagination in the absence of activity,” he says with a smile.

He pauses, recalling the not so pleasant time in his life. “I’d cough up blood and had a fear of dying. I couldn’t sleep. I lived a month of terror and expected to die.”

Obviously, he won the battle and became a recorder of life - and a highly acclaimed one at that.

His first published short story, “Pericles on 31st Street” appeared in Atlantic Monthly.

“I submitted stories for ten years before that first story was accepted,” he says, adding that the story had been submitted previously and rewritten.

“The Christmas holidays were approaching and I needed to know if I’d have money from the article. I knew it wasn’t considered appropriate to contact them, but I did it anyway. They got back to me and said yes,” he says.

“Pericles on 31st Street” was shown on the Dick Powell Anthology Theatre in 1965. The TV production was directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Theodore Bickel, Caroll O’Connor, Strother Martin and Arthur O’Connell.

Petrakis met Studs Terkel in 1959, after his first novel, “Lion at My Heart,” had been published. Terkel called Petrakis to tell him he liked the book and would like to do a program together.

“I was so excited I went down to Kroch & Brentano’s and stood by the window hoping someone would recognize me as the author,” Petrakis recalls, with a smile.

He and Studs did perform together, six or seven times.

“He has a warmth and animation that draws emotions out of people like no one else could,” Petrakis says.

He recalls a story about Studs: Studs was robbed by a burglar who took his wallet. Studs asked the burglar for $20 to get him going in the morning and the burglar gave it to him.

“He’s unpretentious and has no falseness,” Pretakis says.

Petrakis, who has the same qualities, has 18 published books. His most successful is the 1969 “Dream of Kings.” The novel, a colorful look at the Greek community of Chicago was made into a movie starring Anthony Quinn.

“It’s a little bit of who I am and a little of who I’d like to be,” he says about the story.

He raised his family here and says he has enjoyed living in the Duneland community, while still close to his Chicago. Petrakis, now 78, has been married to his wife Ida for 60 years.

He has twice been nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction. The New York Times praised him as “one of our finest writers.”

He has won awards from Friends of American Writers, Friends of Literature, Society of Midland Authors, The O’Henry Award, and has Honorary Degrees from the University of Illinois, Roosevelt University, Hellenic College and Governors State University. In 1992 he held the Kazantzakis Chair in Modern Greek Studies at San Francisco State University.

He has published in numerous prestigious magazines and newspapers. He has lectured, presented writing workshops and storytelling seminars around the country. He is consistently listed in “Who’s Who in America.”

His latest novel, “Twilight of the Ice,” will be published this fall.

Meanwhile, he is offering his insights and advice to the cast of “Love Stories,” which opens Thursday.


Posted 6/12/2002