I met Alex Vavoulis in February.
I was working on a column about the death of Leslie Bassett, a 1947 Fresno State graduate who won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for music. Vavoulis, a retired Fresno State chemistry professor, was able to fill me in on important details related to Bassett. As a longtime president of the Fresno Free College Foundation, which still runs radio station KFCF 88.1 FM, Vavoulis helped me with an interesting tidbit about Bassett and how for seven years, beginning in 1978, the Pulitzer winner helped judge a Fresno State competition for young composers.
In terms of my connection to Vavoulis, that should have been it. He was just one of dozens of sources I interact with each week. I knew a little about him – his chemistry career, the foundation, his interest in classical music – just as I know a little about lots of people.
If you’d told me that eight months later I would know much of his life story, I would have been surprised.
But sometimes you just connect with a person. Call it journalistic chemistry. That’s what happened with me and the 91-year-old Vavoulis. Part of it, I suspect, is his voice: gentle but authoritative, still with a trace of a Brooklyn accent, soft-spoken but sometimes erupting with a wry chuckle. I just like listening to him talk. It relaxes me. I’m intrigued, too, by his Greek roots. His parents were immigrants. Vavoulis and his wife, Vasiliky, still return to Greece for extended visits. I visited Athens in January, and we had fun comparing notes.
Then I started learning more about his story. That’s how I ended up writing this column today. This piece isn’t tied to an upcoming concert or shiny new trend (though there is an interesting book to mention). Instead, it’s simply a reminder that many of us – especially those who have been around for a number of decades – have fascinating and uplifting stories to tell.
Here is the inspiring story Vavoulis shares:
When he was 14 years old, living in a hardscrabble Brooklyn clawing its way out of the Great Depression, he got the chance to go to a summer camp called Duck Island. It changed his life.
His parents had met and married each other after coming to America. The oldest boy, Ted, was born in 1922. George came in 1923. Alex followed in 1924. The only girl, Alice, arrived in 1925. (Talk about clockwork.)
Vavoulis’ mother and father ran a working-class diner in Pittsburgh until the economy tanked. They moved themselves and their four children to Brooklyn to be close to relatives. And thus began an inner-city childhood, one that was tight-knit and steeped in Greek traditions and culture (the kids went to Greek school at 4 p.m. daily after regular school) and family drama (he still remembers his grandmother screaming when his aunt eloped with her violin teacher) but without much money to spare.
Then came a summer camp run by a man named Tony Duke.
A young man from a wealthy Long Island family, Duke – at the tender age of 19 – decided to start a summer camp for underprivileged boys. He and his Ivy League college buddies threw the thing together on their own, acting as staff and counselors. Starting in 1937, Vavoulis and his brothers got to attend.
Those two weeks each summer for Vavoulis were golden. He and his brothers learned about discipline, cleanliness, competition and how to interrelate with other kids and adults. He looked up to Duke as a role model. Duke would take the boys on an outing to his family home in Montauk, on the tip of Long Island, and Vavoulis remembers the lawn out front being so big it looked like it would take forever just to get to the front door.
Duke showed the boys there was another world out there.
In the Greek language, Vavoulis says Duke would be called a leventis – a fine, upstanding man with a powerful build and generosity of heart.
“Carl Jung spoke of the ‘life tree’ metaphorically when he wrote that annually the tree produces new leaves and blossoms that are more beautiful than the previous ones; so it is with the tree life of humans,” Vavoulis tells me one day, one of several times we got together these past months to talk about his experience. “Tony Duke helped me become optimistic about life.”
It turns out Duke had found a lifelong calling. After a break for World War II, Duke founded the now famous Boys and Girls Harbour organization, based in Harlem, which is still sending kids to camp eight decades later.
Vavoulis shows me a book, “Diamonds in the Rough,” published this year by the foundation telling the stories of former campers over a period of 80 years whose lives were changed. He’s featured in the first chapter as one of three original campers.
Duke died in 2014 at the age of 95.
In our talks, I learn a lot more about Vavoulis: how he joined the Navy in 1943 when he graduated from high school; how he went to Brooklyn College under the GI bill and got a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry; how he went on to get a doctorate from University of the Pacific.
I learn how his beloved older brother, Ted, was killed in 1944, from wounds received at Normandy. (When he talks about Ted, it’s the only time in our various conversations I can remember his melodious voice coming close to breaking.) In an illustration of how life’s coincidences can add up, he tells me how deeply he felt when he learned that Tony Duke commanded one of the ships that landed troops at Normandy.
There is much more I could write about Vavoulis and how he’s added to the texture and fabric of Fresno over the years: the students’ lives he touched as a chemistry professor at Fresno State; the trouble he stirred up using the Fresno Free College Foundation, which was originally founded to protect the academic freedom of poet Robert Mezey, who was fired from his teaching position; the importance of KFCF as an alternative radio voice.
Then there’s his love of Greece. I love listening to him talking about Greece. Think how proud his parents, who left their homeland for better lives, would be knowing how far their children came in terms of the American dream.
But I’ll save that for another time. Another discussion.
If you’re like me, you meet different people throughout your life as the days march on, and you interact with them in a fairly narrow way in terms of getting to really know them. Think of the clerk who rings up your groceries, or the hygienist who cleans your teeth, or the neighbor you bump into walking your dog each day. Or even the people you think you know well: colleagues at work, friends at church, maybe even your own parents.
Everyone has a story. All you have to do is listen. I’m already looking forward to hearing what else Alex Vavoulis has to say.