Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

EVEN HIS PARROT SPEAKS GREEK

Heracles Panagiotides is a scholar, a researcher and a philosopher. Almost everything about him reflects his Greek heritage and his Greek Orthodox faith. He has taught the Greek language to innumerable students and even his parrot speaks Greek.

FAMILY BACKGROUND

His parents were from Asia Minor and Constantinople. His father Stavros (1909-1996) was from the Pontos region on the southern shore of the Black Sea. Stavros was the only survivor of 10 siblings who were killed in brutal ways by the Turks, some even burned alive in churches. Stavros’ great uncle, Christos Simeonides, was an esteemed lawyer, a legal advisor to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and a member of the Ottoman parliament who remained in Pontos during the purging of Greeks from the area, hoping the area would become free from the Turks. He was put in prison and decapitated with an ax. Heracles’ grandfather, after whom he was named, was hanged by the Turks. At age 13, Stavros went to stay with an uncle in Thessaloniki, Greece. The uncle was not in good health and Stavros was working there to support him.

Heracles’ mother, Fotini “Fotika,” was from Constantinople. The date of her birth is not clear. She was a few years younger than Stavros and died in 1977. Her father, Damianos Tozakoglou, was Greek and a Turkish citizen. He escaped one night from the threat of conscription into the Turkish Army, slept under the bridges during the day and found his way to Constantinople where he had a shop making bronze items. Heracles has several of the pieces made by his grandfather. One day a Turkish soldier entered the shop and observed a large photograph of Eleftherios Venizelos, the leader of the Greek national liberation, and asked who that was. Damianos said “none of your business” and struck the Turk, knocking him down the stairs. Knowing he would be killed if the Turk died, Damianos left Constantinople in the middle of the night and fled to Thessaloniki.

Heracles’ maternal grandmother, Alexandra, came from an educated family. Her great uncle was a bishop. Her mother died when she was young. She had two brothers. One, Iosif, was very bright and well-educated, graduating from school with high honors. He spoke seven languages and was an official of the Ottoman Empire. He went to Bagdad, Iraq, to establish a tobacco trading business but, not being the business type, lost everything and went to Jerusalem to become a monk. Heracles still has a letter meticulously written by hand from Iosif to Alexandra. Both Damianos and Alexandra had a natural sense of faith and were very devout Christians. It is said that Alexandra’s father, Timotheos, would waken his children in the middle of the night to pray and read the bible.

HERACLES’ STORY

Heracles was born in Thessaloniki on October 28, 1950. He is an only child who grew up in very poor conditions. The family home had once belonged to the sister of Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish army officer, revolutionary and founder of the Republic of Turkey. It was a small house in an old neighborhood with many refugees. While conditions were poor by today’s standards, he has good memories of his childhood. Everyone lived in one room with the outhouse away from the home. Heracles remembers his father attempting to make a hole in the wall to let in some light and found frescoes on the wall. Then, as the wall was too thick to penetrate, he filled the hole and left it alone.

Life for his family centered around the neighborhood church, Profitis (Prophet) Ilias, which was a playground for Heracles. The church caretaker, Panagis, was another refugee with whom Heracles would sit and listen to stories from the old days. Panagis did not have the voice of a psaltis (chanter) but knew the theory of chanting and loved to do it. Heracles still has the book Panagis used to teach him chanting. Heracles remembers the faith of the saintly old women with an inner beauty in their faces. He recalls one who had nothing but a sewing machine which she used to make vestments for the priest and how she would walk with difficulty with her cane between her home and the church.

Schooling was not the most pleasant for Heracles as the teachers were very strict, often striking the students to encourage their learning. However, he learned a lot through memorization. He attended six years in elementary school, three years in gymnasio (middle school) and finished likio (high school) in 1968. It had been suggested that he go to the United States to further his education but compulsory military service was in his immediate future. In the Greek Army, he was stationed on the island of Limnos in charge of keeping records for food supplies, with a rank of sergeant and a salary of one dollar per month. When he finished his service in April of 1974, during the invasion of Cyprus, he was scheduled to be recalled. As the conflict deescalated he was able to proceed with the plan to go to the United States.

Heracles enjoyed engaging with local people on Limnos during his military service. He was fortunate to tutor the child of a family from America who was visiting Limnos and from that experience learned a bit of English. During visits to Greece by his thea (aunt), Katina James and her American husband, he was also exposed to the language. He had an image of the United States as an unsafe place to live particularly when a military colleague who had lived in Chicago told him of being robbed at gun point. With $200 and two suitcases he arrived in New York City and stayed with the family who had visited Limnos. From there he flew to Tacoma, Washington, to be with his aunt and uncle, Katina and Don James.

Heracles’ biggest problem in Tacoma was dealing with the English language. While he understood some of the words, when phrases were rapidly spoken, he was unable to follow the conversation. Once he became more comfortable with the language he realized that, deep down, everybody is the same and he found people to be extremely kind.

Heracles has what he calls a “musical ear” and knows that language, a left-brain function, and music, a right-brain function, are closely related. In fact, he knew a man who suffered a stroke and could not speak, but still could chant the Orthodox music. On his first visit to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Tacoma, he met the priest, Fr. Anthony Tomaras, who asked if he knew how to chant. When Heracles told of his years in Thessaloniki with Panagis, Fr. Anthony said, “you’re on” and Heracles began his thirty-seven-year work as the psalti  at St. Nicholas.

He first attended Tacoma Community College for two years mostly to learn English.  Science and mathematics came easily as those subjects had been covered in high school in Thessaloniki. He then transferred to the University of Washington (UW) with the intent of studying psychology but, seeking a more scientific approach, turned to physiological psychology and eventually neuroscience. He graduated in 1978 and then taught for 10 years at Tacoma Community College. In 1988 he returned to the UW to complete his PhD in neuroscience. His main interest has become the study of the brain and how it affects behavior.

Presently, Heracles has two roles at the UW. He teaches Greek at the Hellenic Studies program in the Jackson School of International Studies, with the first three of six courses online, allowing him to work from home part of the time. There have been up to 100 students in his classes, most from Korea. His home study is full of electronic equipment for his work. He also teaches private Greek language lessons to Greeks and non-Greeks. His second role is that of researcher in the UW school of Medicine and the epilepsy center at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, Washington. His focus is on the theory of anxiety where its outward manifestation is anger or striking out and where the internalization of anxiety may result in a person’s illness or even death.

REFLECTIONS

For Heracles, the Greek culture can be maintained both in academic settings such as the Hellenic Studies program at the UW and through the Greek Orthodox Church. He believes that use of the Greek language in the Church, while difficult for some to learn and understand, adds a profound meaning to the faith. He encourages efforts to learn the language to make the religion meaningful rather than simply “giving up.” He cites the Jewish faith as an example where Hebrew is maintained and learned by young people. Learning the language can be a positive experience as the richness of the language adds to one’s understanding of life. For example, the word synchoro (to forgive) literally means to allow a person space. He says archi sophias onomaton episcopis (the beginning of wisdom is the understanding of the word and concepts). At the same time, he knows that ego philosofo tin zoe (I’m philosophical in my life) and adopts the axioms then pirazi (doesn’t matter or don’t worry), and pan metro aristo (everything in moderation).

From his research at the UW, Heracles has concluded that the root of all problems is anxiety. He contends that the old morality, where attempts to control behavior come from a higher authority (church or government), has not been successful. Rather, he believes that behavior should not be defined as bad or good, but anxious or non-anxious. People with problems need assistance in how to escape a predicament rather than being judged. This approach has also been advocated by the Church fathers who believe in the methodology of introspection. The phrase gnothi safton (know thyself) is a wise approach whether scientifically or religiously based.

Heracles is not a traveler. His contacts with relatives and friends in Greece are by telephone or social media. He wishes that those in Greece would have a greater sense of community responsibility, something he values in American society. Spending time with Heracles is like a comfortable period of education. His approach and teaching style reflect his own deep faith and philosophical beliefs. He weaves the Greek language effortlessly into the conversation which is augmented and often interrupted by Tony, his Greek-speaking parrot.

By John and Joann Nicon, August. 2018
VIDEO SEGMENTS
PHOTOS
1 Heracles, 2018
2 Alexandra and Iosif Isaiou, maternal grandmother and her brother, late 1800.
3 Damianos and Alexandra Tozakoglou maternal grandparents, late 1800.
4 Letter from Iosif Isaiou, in Baghdad, date unknown
5 Fotika and her brother John, late 1940s
6 Heracles, 1955
7 Don and Katina James with Heracles, 1973
8 Don James, Katina James, Stavros, Heracles, 1979
9 Stavros and Heracles, 1979
10 Heracles 30-year protopsalti recognition, 2004
11 Heracles, 2018
Photo 1 and 11 by John Nicon; all others from Panagiotides family collection
SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, March 2018