With a commitment to modern Greek studies, Nicholas Kolas honors his heritage—and an old friend.
By Mary Shafer
When Theo Stavrou was a new University faculty member in 1961, teaching his first class in the history of the modern Middle East, he couldn't help but notice the student in the second row. “He kept smiling during the whole class," Stavrou recalls.
After class, the young man introduced himself as Nicholas Kolas. Like the professor, Kolas had been born and raised in Greece, and the two struck up a conversation. Nearly five decades later, their conversations—now ensconced in a firm and loyal friendship—continue.
Both men went on to sterling careers. Stavrou remains on the University faculty as a renowned professor of modern Greek and Russian history. Kolas graduated with a degree in political science in 1962, then became a successful business entrepreneur in southern Minnesota. Among the bedrocks of their friendship has been an abiding love for and commitment to the study of modern Greece. Now, they hope to see that commitment embodied in a fellowship that Kolas helped launch last fall. Its aim will be to attract top-notch graduate students in modern Greek studies—and it will be named for Theo Stavrou.
For Kolas, the fellowship continues a lifetime of investment in keeping his culture alive. Listen to him talk about his native Greece and you can practically feel the Mediterranean sun spilling onto his stories. There he is, the youngest of 12 children growing up on the family farm near the ancient port city of Patras. He's the one his father teasingly calls “Benjamin," after the twelfth son of the biblical Jacob.
And there is his mother, determined to keep the farm running and the family together after her husband is killed by a bull when Nicholas is only 3. She is determined, too, that her youngest will be educated, even though she herself is unschooled—at a time when only 10 percent of Greek children finish high school at all. “It was ‘education, education, education," Kolas says of her fondly.
It was 1955 when Kolas left Greece, arriving in New York where an immigration agent unwittingly shortened the family name, Klokithas, to “Kolos," which could be translated roughly—and generously—as “windbag." He eventually changed it to Kolas and went on to live the quintessential American success story. After living with a sister in Austin, Minnesota, where he went to high school to learn English
and mopped floors to earn his way, he became the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Combining his Greek roots with entrepreneurial savvy, Kolas graduated from his first job as a supermarket trainee—“the only thing I could get"—to eventually own a chain of stores in Austin and Rochester. He recalls how he came to name the liquor store that was part of the chain. It was 1969, and the news was all about the first manned mission to the moon when the name came to him. “Apollo!" he laughs, slapping his forehead as one imagines he might have done at the time. “That's it! Named for an American moon landing AND a Greek god!"
“Mr. Kolas is a supreme example of a young man who worked extremely hard, and beat almost anything that came his way to improve himself professionally and socially," Savrou says of his friend.
“I admire his loyalty, and his willingness to always respond when there is a need, whether it's in education or working with other civic associations.
“He is very much interested in seeing that these traditions to which I have dedicated all my academic life—mainly the teaching of Greek language and modern Greek literature and culture—continue. We have trained some outstanding students who are now teaching in leading American colleges and universities; our library in the field is arguably one of the best in the country. The fellowship—part of a three-phase initiative to endow modern Greek studies at the University—will help continue this tradition."
For both of these men, the story is about overcoming the obstacles on the journey, so it is hardly a surprise that each says he has been inspired by the poem “Ithaca," by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafis.
“Always keep Ithaca on your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way..."