Apollo Papafrangou pays tribute to one of the Bay Area Greek community’s most iconic cultural heroes, ‘kalos anthropos’ Thanasis Maskaleris.
By: Apollo Papafrangou
Greek-American Thanasis Maskaleris
The San Francisco Bay Area Greek community mourns the recent loss of one of our most iconic cultural heroes, Professor Thanasis Maskaleris. He fell asleep in the Lord on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 87 after a long battle with prostate cancer. Born in a village in Arkadia, Greece in 1930, young Maskaleris developed a love of literature; an enthusiasm which, even at an early age, he yearned to share with others. In accepting an award at a 2003 California Hellenic Council event, Maskaleris fondly remembered a childhood ritual of reading schoolbook passages to his illiterate mother, a practice they both cherished. While she took pride in her son’s scholarly pursuits, Ms. Maskaleris above all else wanted her son to live with philotimo. His mother’s words echoed to him throughout his life.
“Become a good human being. Na yineis kalos anthropos.”
Of the many titles Maskaleris went on to possess—professor, lecturer, poet, author, environmentalist—kalos anthropos might be his proudest. It’s the attribute that initially comes to mind when remembering the genial man always willing to offer a quick-witted remark, or gem of advice to a young student or aspiring writer.
A treasured friend
To befriend Maskaleris was to know kindness and curiosity personified. These qualities were most evident in his ever-present, mischievous smile; the grin that seemed to hint at a warm exclamation, or a metaphysical inquiry, readying to leave his lips and inspire his latest piece. Up to his death, he remained a tireless champion of Hellenism and the environment at large. As a good person of wisdom, which, according to Aristotle is the highest good, he attended and curated events he believed would better the Greek culture and better the earth. Like Aristotle, Maskaleris was a man of ethics and education. Among his highest accomplishments, he founded and directed the Modern Greek Studies Foundation at San Francisco State University in 1981, and added the Nikos Kazantzakis Chair in 1983. One of the first programs of its kind across American university campuses, the foundation provides college students with language courses in modern Greek, as well as literature and sociology classes to help them develop a deeper understanding of the modern Greek culture as it shaped Hellenic identity beyond the golden age of Ancient Greece.
A life on the rugged path
In speaking with Maskaleris, I often got the impression that while mining the depths of the Greek experience he sought to, like most of us, unearth a deeper understanding of himself. Long prone to intellectual pursuits, he immigrated from Greece to the U.S. at the age of 17. He studied English and Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, and later Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He went on to teach at Wayne State, Ohio Wesleyan, St. Mary’s College, and UC Berkeley prior to landing a job at San Francisco State. There he taught Comparative Literature, Classics, and Creative Writing. He authored and edited many translations of Greek poetry, in addition to seeing his own poems and essays published in both English and Greek. The Terrestrial Gospel of Nikos Kazantzakis (2011) and My Life on the Rugged Paths of Pan (2015) are among his most recent works.
Inevitably perhaps, many artists begin to embody their craft. Musicians often choose attire fitting of their auditory expression, while painters have been known to adopt the bold pigments previously reserved for their canvases. Maskaleris, as I knew him in later life, appeared to take on the shape of a poem in progress. His posture was slightly stooped forward, like a question mark or a stanza curving beyond the page margin, too bold to contain. Yet, despite the lean of his shoulders, bent as if beneath the weight of the many noble causes he had carried over the years, he never struck me as tired. On the contrary, he appeared fueled by an endless spark of vitality whenever we crossed paths after church or following a cultural event. In our interactions, however brief, he always asked for updates about my creative endeavors, inquiring with a genuineness that made me feel like one of his colleagues despite his pinnacle of authority. No doubt this humility and generosity are among the reasons he will remain so well-remembered and loved in and beyond the local Greek community.
Given his warm spirit that endeared him in the hearts of so many, it’s still a surprise that he is no longer with us, as though, despite his chronic illness, in all his accrued wisdom through the years he might have unearthed a secret to everlasting life. He’s gone, however, but not forgotten. Perhaps in that respect, a part of him remains: Thanasis Maskaleris; poet, philosopher, environmentalist, Hellene. A good person, kalos anthropos, whose memory will remain eternal in us all.
Apollo Papafrangou is an Oakland, CA native. He’s a poet, and the author of the novel Wings of Wax available now from Olive Leaf Editions.