One year has gone by since the passing of Michael Sotirhos, the United States’ first Greek-American ambassador in Athens, on April 14, 2019 at the age of 91.
Sotirhos spent years working in the real estate and construction sectors before entering government service in 1985, when President Ronald Reagan appointed him US ambassador to Jamaica.
After four years, President George H.W. Bush picked him to lead the US diplomatic service in Greece’s capital city. The New York City native became the 40th American ambassador to Greece and remained in his position for the standard four-year tenure.
Sotirhos was the son of Greek immigrants who arrived in the US through Ellis Island in 1923. He was born on November 12, 1928 and raised in Manhattan, where he graduated from Baruch College at The City University of New York.
Unique in more ways than one
Sotirhos’ ethnic background and big city upbringing gave him various advantages during his time in the foreign service.
On December 29, 1989, the New York Times published an article about the ambassador titled “Kinsman from U.S. Is Taking Greece by Storm.” In the text, contributing writer Paul Anastasi described how Sotirhos embarked on a bold and unabashed “public relations campaign” that previous ambassadors would not have attempted.
“Reversing America’s low-profile diplomacy in Greece, he insists on braving the threat of terrorism by displaying the American flag wherever he goes,” Anastasi wrote. “He does not hesitate to step into the crowd to cheer at basketball games, and he jokingly reassures Greeks that he, like most of them, is an islander – from the island of Manhattan.
The article cites a firsthand witness who said that Sotirhos, when questioned by an elderly couple in the streets of a small Greek town, responded that his parents were islanders — his father from Kythira and his mother from Milos.
Anastasi wrote that Sotirhos would regularly attend Greek Orthodox Sunday liturgies at Athens churches, even singing along with hymns on occasion. All the while, he wore an American flag pin on his lapel.
Undeterred by anti-Americanism
The two countries maintained amicable relations after World War II, when the U.S. provided massive amounts of military and economic relief to war-ravaged Greece. Waves of Greek immigrants also settled across the Atlantic which increased ties between both nations.
Sotirhos did not let that history deter his campaign.
In the aforementioned New York Times article from 1989, Anastasi included a quote from a diplomat who repeated the ambassador’s words regarding safety measures and concealing his American presence.
”We’re going to take every necessary security precaution, but we’re not going to hide,” Sotirhos said. “Having armored cars and bodyguards, that’s security. Not flying the flag is hiding.”
Other lifetime achievements
Michael Sotirhos served the Greek Orthodox Church in various capacities. He co-founded the Greek Orthodox Youth of America and served as president of the United Greek Orthodox Charities, among other organizations. For decades he served on the Archdiocesan Council. He also received honorary law doctorates from the Hellenic College Holy Cross, American College of Greece (Deree) and The City College of New York.
A lifelong Republican, Sotirhos served as chairman of the New York State Republican Heritage Groups Council, Chairman of the Heritage Council of the Republican National Committee and Chairman of Ethnic Voters ’84 for the Reagan-Bush Presidential Campaign. He also served as a member of the President’s Council on Voluntary Service, New York State Council on Architecture and the District Advisory Council of the Small Business Administration.
In 2002, Sotirhos received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, now known as the Ellis Island Honors Society.
According to the organization, the award honors individuals who “have made it their mission to share with those less fortunate, their wealth of knowledge, indomitable courage, boundless compassion, unique talents and selfless generosity. They do so while acknowledging their debt to their ethnic heritage as they uphold the ideals and spirit of America.”
Past medalists include American presidents, world leaders, Nobel Prize winners and other leaders in fields such as education, the arts, sports and government.
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