Kokalis at 98 and Still Counting
George P. Kokalis, Founding Member and former Chairman of Leadership 100, celebrated his 98th birthday on July 20, 2007. Looking forward to the 25th Anniversary of Leadership 100 in 2009, he is counting not his years but the new members to fill his prophetic vision for the organization he holds in his heart.
When an 11-year-old George P. Kokalis left his native village of Kalavitra in Greece for America, he left behind the sheep and goats he had to count but did not leave behind the faith and values that were to make him a successful businessman and exemplary philanthropist. Upon his arrival in New York, he was detained at Ellis Island until a brother-in-law went to court to get him released. The pair then went to Chicago where Kokalis began his American journey.
The bright young immigrant picked up English at play waiting to go to school. But he didn’t wait long to begin working, learning the produce business and going into business for himself at 15 when completed the eighth grade. He went on to high school where he met his future wife, Evelyn and, after achieving success through the 1920 by organizing a produce cooperative of 50 to 255 members, he married her in 1931. He later started his own supermarket chain, Sure Safe.
The story would end there much like so many other immigrant stories except that George P. Kokalis could never forget his roots and his responsibility to his community, his Church and his fellow human beings. When he sold his supermarket chain in 1961, he established the first library in the Greek Community in America, at St. Demetrios Church in Chicago, consecrated by Archbishop Iakovos, another pioneer in Greek America. And when he moved with his family to Phoenix, Arizona afterwards, he became a full-fledged philanthropist, now counting the goodness he could impart. He donated his own funds but challenged others, always counting higher to raise the money to acquire prime real estate and build Holy Trinity Church and Community Center, which became Holy Trinity Cathedral in 1988.
Serving on the Archdiocesan Council for a record 34 years, George’s journey was not always smooth. He lost his beloved wife, Evelyn. Later he married again, to Stephanie Pappas, and guided his growing family. Always alert to financial need for a growing community and Church, he was stunned to find an Archdiocese that couldn’t pay its grocery bills. He went to work for his faith and his heritage as never before, serving on the Archdiocese Finance Committee, and, together with a small group of founders in 1984, supported the vision of Archbishop Iakovos in establishing Leadership 100. The counting began in earnest -100 members at $100,000 each. The result was a truly national Greek Orthodox Church, a more visible Greek American Community and a new vehicle for Greek American leaders.
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