Nearly 70 years after his parents left an idyllic Mediterranean island for a one-bedroom basement apartment in cold, rainy New York City, Harris Pastides is making his first trip to the spot where they arrived in America.
Though Andreas and Anastasia Pastides died years ago, the University of South Carolina’s president hopes somehow his parents will be watching Saturday when he receives the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, given to outstanding children of immigrants.
“They’re the ones who sacrificed, not me,” an emotional Pastides told The State newspaper in an interview this week. “When I get this medal, I’m not really going to be much thinking about me. I’m going to be thinking about them.
“I wish I could hand it to them personally, but the best I can do is probably point upwards and give my sister a particularly special hug.”
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A better opportunity
Pastides’ path to the award – which also has gone to six U.S. presidents as well as to Hillary Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks – began six years before his birth.
Pastides’ parents were struggling as citrus farmers in post-World War II Cyprus. They likely could have made ends meet, Pastides said, but they knew their children would have better opportunities in the United States.
So, in October 1948, Pastides’ parents left their family and home in Cyprus. They settled in a one-bedroom apartment at 31st Street and Ditmars Boulevard, in New York City’s Queens neighborhood of Astoria, near the R-train line.
Pastides’ father found work as a cook and later opened his own breakfast-and-lunch restaurant, leaving home at 4 a.m. six days a week to run the Star Food Shop in upper Manhattan and returning at 7 each night. His parents spent years studying for the U.S. citizenship test.
Pastides was born into the Greek-speaking household in 1954. He shared a pull-out couch with his older sister, Barbara, until she married and moved out.
“I didn’t know that I was missing anything,” Pastides said. “I didn’t feel like I was lacking a thing.”
What his parents lacked in money they made up for in family, Pastides said. Spending Sundays together was non-negotiable – even if the Yankees were playing.
That clearly rubbed off on Pastides, his wife says.
“You can see how warm he is toward people and how he really cares about people, and I think that really came from his parents,” said Patricia Moore-Pastides, USC’s first lady, who will be at Ellis Island with Pastides this weekend. “We’re all feeling a little tearful.”
‘Go to college’
Pastides’ parents never complained about what they sacrificed for their children. But they stressed the importance of getting an education.
His mother, who spoke “highly imperfect” English, attended every possible PTA meeting and parent-teacher conference, sometimes relying on her son to translate.
Talks of college centered on where to go. Not going was never an option.
While his parents were not fluent enough in English to edit his college application essays, “they certainly made sure it was out on time and had a stamp on it,” Pastides said
“Wash your hands, say your prayers at night and go to college,” Pastides joked of his parents’ instructions.
Pastides eventually graduated from the State University of New York in Albany and then Yale University, where he met his wife and earned his master’s degree in public health and his doctorate in epidemiology.
“Part of why I ... went into academia was probably because of the esteem they always had and maybe even the desire they always had for me to be a teacher and professor,” Pastides said.
Pastides’ advocacy for civil rights and diversity on USC’s campus made him a perfect pick for the award, according to the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, which is giving the honor Pastides will receive.
“He has built a career on making the world a better place and promoting equality,” NECO board Chair Nasser Kazeminy said.
‘Hopefully, there is a way that they know’
Pastides’ office at USC is filled with memorabilia, including awards from national organizations. But this one – so closely tied to his heritage and his parents’ toil – is different.
Pastides has stayed in touch with his roots.
He speaks Greek – albeit not as well, nowadays – with family members. He attends the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Columbia. He has taken sabbaticals to Greece and works with the Fulbright Foundation to stem that country’s “brain drain” of talented professors.
“He feels very drawn to trying to help Greece and Cyprus because that’s where he got his start, if you will,” Moore-Pastides said. “That’s where his people hail from. He wants very deeply to do what he can to represent the country well and the nationality well.”
Pastides plans to take his family this weekend to see his old New York City neighborhood – the apartment, the stores where they shopped, the cemetery where his parents now rest.
He hopes to find their names on Ellis Island’s Wall of Honor, where he and his sister paid years ago to have them engraved.
Being celebrated Saturday on the patch of land where his parents took their first U.S. steps brings closure to an immigration story, Pastides said.
“Hopefully, there’s a way that they know about it,” Pastides said, his voice softening. “I don’t mean to get overly romantic about it. But, hopefully, there is a way that they know.”
That would have been USC President Harris Pastides’ official name, if not for a birth certificate mix-up at Astoria General Hospital.
Pastides was born there, in Queens, in 1954 to parents who spoke “highly imperfect” English.
When a nurse approached with a piece of paper asking what their new son would be called, Andreas and Anastasia Pastides replied with the informal name: Harris.
“That’s kind of like Andy or Buddy or Mickey,” Pastides said. “It’s not the official version.”
Pastides’ parents had no inkling the nurse was asking the baby’s name for his birth certificate, and Pastides’ first name – which was to be Haralambos – became Harris.
“I’m really glad that happened,” Pastides said jokingly. “I don’t think I would be president of USC if that were my name. They would have just found someone different.”