You Won't Find Him in the Hall of Fame, but One York Alum Did End Up Becoming the Leader of Greece

Elmhurst native Diane Kafka recalls the year her first cousin, George Papandreou, came to live with her family on Kenilworth Avenue and attend York High School.

Diane Kafka is so quiet, you have to listen very carefully to hear her—especially in a bustling Starbuck's. She's artistic and gentle; she feels deep compassion for those around her. War and rioting and revolution are not things she is comfortable with.

Diane worries—a lot.

Her family has been glued to the news coming out of Greece lately. We've all heard about it—a crumbling economy, unrest among citizens, what this could mean for all of Europe and, eventually, the United States. It's uncomfortable to watch, like so many things these days.

But Diane has an additional layer of worry. Her first cousin is Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, and he's in the crosshairs of the crisis. That is, he was until he stepped down from his position on Monday to allow a transition government to take over. It is part of an effort to appease the opposition, which is demanding an immediate debt relief deal to save the country from default.

"I've had anxiety for months," Diane said. "I don't have as much now, because he did step down, but he's always in the public eye.

"I never know if someone is going to try and," she paused, "hurt him."

It isn't the first time the family has been under fire.

"I always remember the coup, when his father was in power," Diane said.

Diane was only about 9 or 10 when she learned of the imprisonment of her uncle, George's father Andreas, after a military coup d'etat in 1967. Andreas was a chief economic advisor to his father, who was prime minister at the time.

The Papandreous were and are a political dynasty, Diane said. "Such power in the family," she said, almost self-consciously. 

The coup led to young George coming to Elmhurst for his sophomore year of high school at York. It's not too surprising that he ended up here, considering George's mother, Margaret Chant, was a 1941 York graduate.

She has an interesting story, herself: she was a member of York's first girls basketball team. "She was very tall and slim," Diane said. She also worked as a waitress at the old Keeler's Candies, near the York Theatre, when she was young.

"My dad would go there and get the English toffee, and he'd always ask her for the recipe. She wouldn't give it to us," Diane said.

And she ended up leading a socialist-feminist group, the Women's Organization of Greece, after marrying George's father in 1951.

George finished out his sophomore year, then moved to Sweden and eventually back to Greece. But it was during his relatively short time in her home on Kenilworth that Diane said she was changed a little bit.

George was the only one of four siblings to move into Diane's house in 1967. Her memory is fuzzy, but she thinks his two brothers and sister went to live with their grandmother.

George seemed to handle his family's exile without a hitch. He assimilated into York High School in 1968 and quickly made a lot of friends. He formed a rock band with Diane's brother, and they played at the Abbey, back when it was a teen center. George played guitar. He had a girlfriend.

He wasn't around a lot.

"I assumed he was out and about. My brother kept him busy meeting people and joining groups," Diane said.

"I remember I was just in awe. This is a really cool guy. And he's my cousin."

Diane went on to graduate from York, herself, in 1975. But she always kept tabs on what her older, handsome cousin was doing.

"I think subconsciously, because of that connection, my cousins mean more to me than anything. We bonded as a family because of him. He was a big force, just being who he was, bringing the family together. His charm, sense of humor—people are drawn to him."

Back in Greece, according to a Nov. 4 article on CNN.com, George "became a tested diplomat on various issues, including fostering positive relations with Turkey, boosting support for the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism and serving as a key figure in helping defuse a 2002 crisis involving militants expelled from the West Bank after taking refuge in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity" before becoming prime minister.

George has been back to the Chicago area a couple of times since his days at York. And Diane, who now lives in Lombard, was able to take her first and only trip to Greece in 2009 for George's inauguration. She said she was treated like royalty, and George greeted her warmly. He was riding the wave of optimism then—a new chapter for him and for his country.

But it wouldn't last long. Things began falling apart about a year ago, she said. International headlines shouted about rioting in the streets and a country overburdened with debt. He didn't cause the debt crisis, she said, he discovered it.

"His party caused a bit of unrest," she said. "Traditionally, when you get a job in Greece, you have it for life. So when he tried to change things, and people began to get laid off, it really bothered them."

She's sent him e-mails, but he hasn't responded.

"He probably gets thousands of e-mails," she said.

"I talk to Greeks here, restaurant owners, and they would say, 'Oh, they love him and they're going to stick with him,' " she said. "I was worried about them hurting him, and they still said, 'Oh no, they still love him.'

"You really learn who your friends are" in a situation like that, she said. And George's friends began to turn on him.

Diane talks to George's sister, Sofia, who lives in Canada. Sofia told her George doesn't know if he's going to come back to the states.

"If you're at the top, where do you go?" Diane said. "Now that he's stepped down, does that end the dynasty?"

So she continues to watch, and worry—about what's happening here in this country, too. Protests are spreading.

"This country is so divided—culturally divided, there are economic gaps, intellectual gaps, racial, social. We're losing. We're getting in debt, people are unemployed, businesses are folding," she said.

She said one simple principle is key. Without cooperation, there is no harmony, whether in a marriage, a business or in leading a country.

In an email she sent out to her friends Nov. 7, the day George stepped down, Diane said:

"I foresee many books written about our national/world debt. … It is also said in the Bible, 'ye shall reap what you sow.'

"Something to think about.

"Keep my cousin, the former prime minister of Greece, in your prayers."

Cronan November 11, 2011 at 04:56 PM
Outside of the fact that this is really cool, back in 1967 Elmhurst HAD a teen center =( The Abbey has a long heritage of community, dating back to World War II. During the 1940's, teenagers sought a place to hang out, beyond churches and schools. The building held social events, operated by volunteers and funded by Community Chest (a fundraising organization), for the next 12 years. In November 1952 there was a groundbreaking for the present facility, then known as the "Youth Center," while the dedication was held the following year in October 1953. The building traded owners in 1964 from the Elmhurst Youth Center, Inc. to the Elmhurst Park District. The name changed shortly after to "The Abbey" in 1967. The teenagers using the building chose the name from a list of eight names because at the time they were seeking a name that implied a coffee house atmosphere. Under the Park District¹s control, the facility has been used primarily for activities and events for community senior citizens since 1974.
Lived in 5 other metro areas... November 11, 2011 at 05:39 PM
Enjoyed reading that. My husband and I looked at that house when we moved here several years ago. Thanks for the story.
Diane Kafka November 12, 2011 at 05:43 AM
You're welcome!
Janille Palmer Santa Ana November 12, 2011 at 03:44 PM
I fell in love with Greece when we visited a few years back and have been planning on returning. I follow the news about Greece with great interest for that reason. I pray the turmoil there will end soon.
Diane Kafka November 13, 2011 at 02:30 PM
Yes, we all need prayers! Thank you for your thoughts.
Gus Romios November 13, 2011 at 05:23 PM
Imet your cousin back in the late 70's with his family at the Athenian Fireside Restaurant I have many Pitcures of them as we danced and sat togther
Diane Kafka November 14, 2011 at 02:41 AM
Yeah, I remember going there! I ate my first traditional Greek food there. Also, didn't they have belly dancers there at times?
Diane Kafka November 14, 2011 at 02:42 AM
Can you send them to me? I'd like to see them!
Diane Kafka October 06, 2012 at 10:02 PM
It's gotten better, thank you for your concern. My family is safe, thank God.
Diane Kafka October 06, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Gus, are you owner of Greek Islands? Sorry, we have met then. :)
Diane Kafka October 06, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Ah, the Abbey, I remember bands playing there and then turning into a senior center later. Very good for teens congregating instead of getting into trouble. Great idea!
christy green whitney October 28, 2012 at 12:14 AM
yes diane. this was a nice update. george and i were in sophmore dance class and i always wondered about him. prayers to all of the family


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