By George B. Kauffman
Alex Vavoulis, the founder of free speech radio and a frequent contributor to these pages, needs no introduction to Community Alliance readers (Figure 1.) However, I recently learned some facts about the background of my 93-year-old longtime colleague. I’d like to share them with you.
Vasilios (anglicized to William) Vavoulis arrived at Ellis Island from Greece in 1914. Six years later his wife, Ekaterini (anglicized to Katherine) came to America. Both were from villages in the Peloponnese and ended up in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a town just south of Pittsburgh populated by immigrants from their villages in Greece. They were introduced to each other by various relatives. Their marriage was an old world arranged one.
Beginning in 1922, Katherine had four children, three boys (Figure 2) and a girl, in four years, and the Vavoulises opened a restaurant. The family lived above the restaurant and enjoyed a good life until the Great Depression struck. In 1922, when Alex was eight, the restaurant was forced to close, and the family moved to New York, where Katherine had a family. William got a job as a counterman in a restaurant. Katherine worked as a seamstress in a blanket factory. The family first lived on Pearl Street in Borough Hall, a section of Brooklyn. They then lived in an apartment for five years until they saved enough money to buy a two-family house on 19th Street in Bay Ridge.
The parents never really mastered English, and the family spoke Greek at home. The kids attended public school until 3 PM and a Greek school from 4 to 6 PM. The Greek Orthodox church St. Constantine, of which the mother sewed the altar cloth, was a center of their lives. The brothers were part of the Galloping Greeks, a sports club that competed with other Brooklyn teams.
In 1946 older brother Ted attended a summer camp run by St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. The next summer Tony Duke, a student at St. Paul’s, started a camp on long Island, and all three Vavoulis boys attended. There they learned to swim, discipline, cleanliness, competition, and how to relate to other kids and adults.
During World Was II Ted served in the Army, George in the Coast Guard, and Alex in the Navy (Figure 3). Ted died on July 28, 1944, from wounds received during the Normandy invasion. Alex had gone to a vocational high school and learned to be an airplane mechanic so after boot camp, he became an aviation machinist in a Florida air transport squadron. He corresponded with his younger sister Alice, later chairwoman of the Long Island University Sociology Department, who encouraged him to go to college after the war. Alex attended Brooklyn College under the GI Bill and received a bachelor’s degree and then his master’s degree. He earned a teaching doctorate in analytical chemistry and joined FSC (now CSUF) faculty, where he taught for 22 years.
Alex was active in the Fresno Free College Foundation, an organization supporting academic freedom on campus and the artistic, cultural, and intellectual life of the community. KFCF began a listener-sponsored free-speech radio station (88.1 FM), which offers alternative news, social commentary, and music.
Alex has certainly had an immensely beneficial effect on our valley community.
My article is based on the book, “Diamonds in the Rough: Stories of Challenge, Resolve, and Triumph Through Eight Decades of Boys & Girls Harbor,” by Richard Firstman with photographs by Bruce Gilbert, Bayview Press, Inc., Centerport, NY, 2016; ISBN 978-0-9793032-2-7.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, and Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.