By Elizabeth A. Tanos-Priest and Ellaina D. Tanos
“As unaccustomed as I am to public speaking,…””
James D. Tanos always started his speeches with this trademarked phrase. Those who were one of the lucky ones to hear that opening line knew there was going to be a call-to-action from this great orator. James D. Tanos, Esq., eloquently led his fellow Hellenes from the 1950’s through 1980’s, as one of the most memorable and extraordinary leaders in the history of the Greek-American community in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.
To understand the motivation and deep-felt passion for leadership and greatness, we need to start with this incredible man’s humble beginnings. Jim was an only-child and his parents, who were married by a picture-marriage, divorced very soon after he was born. By the time he was only four years old, the Great Depression of 1929 devastated his family’s meager savings, requiring him to sell pencils on the street corner just to earn a few pennies. From a child, Jim learned how to survive under the most extreme hardship conditions and against all the odds. When he was just a young boy, Jim caught pneumonia that required him to undergo a serious operation to repair his lungs.
Since he and his mother would go to Atlantic City at the Jersey Shore every Summer, the doctor told her that the salt air and water would help him recover faster. For several years after that, Jim became the mascot for the lifeguards at the Atlantic City beach. He learned to swim in rough waters and trained with the men, running at the water’s edge for miles. This strict regimen and acumen for athletics were the early beginnings of his love of track. The practice and conditioning of running in the water sharpened his skills and strengthened his body so that his efforts of running on land were that much more efficient and impactful.
When it was time for Jim to go to high school, there was only one that would be considered, Central High School, which was one of the most prestigious public schools in Philadelphia at the time. Jim soon became a football and track star throughout his high school years, using his techniques and training regimes to help propel him to great success and ahead of all the rest. He was a champion hurdler in track, and with every athletic success, his popularity grew as did his leadership abilities. Once attending Central High School, Jim became actively involved in his student council as an officer from his Freshmen year.
By the time he was a Senior, he was voted as the lifetime president of his graduating class of 1943. This would be Jim’s first formal position of leadership, and he could not have been more proud. He always had fond memories of his days at Central High School. This leadership position was the first of countless senior and executive positions that Jim would hold and serve successfully throughout his life. Then, in the Summer of 1943 at the age of 17, Jim decided to enlist to fight for his country abroad in WWII. He had taken several technical courses to prepare, as his dream was to be in the Air Force. But when he was being deployed overseas, the Army needed more reinforcements, so Jim had to go where assigned. Jim was so angry of his new assignment that he failed all of the infantry tests and exams, except one. See, as a young boy, he and an older family friend would sit on the rooftops of the row-homes in Philadelphia and shoot out the street lights with bee-bee guns. His skills as a sharpshooter were exceptional, which elevated him to being a Sniper for his regiment in the mountains of Italy and Germany. He was very quickly promoted to serving as the leader of his platoon, guiding his men through unthinkable challenges and deadly battles. He lived in the mountains of Italy and survived in the harshest of conditions for two years until victory was declared in May 1945. Jim was honorably discharged, coming through Ellis Island on December 25th and making his way home to Philadelphia on Christmas Day.
Jim was a highly decorated soldier, awarded numerous commendations and medals, including three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, the Oak Leaf Cluster, Rifle Expert Pin, Distinguished Unit Pin, the Victory Medal, three Combat Campaign Stars, and a Presidential Citation. He was a Platoon Leader of Company C 142nd Infantry Regiment PFC and a sniper. For any other war veteran, one of these distinguished medals would have been a lifetime’s accomplishment. But for Jim, as evidenced time and time again, he was a true and genuine hero for his fellow soldier and his fellow man.
Once back home in Philadelphia, Jim applied again to only one school, The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, as a veteran on the G.I. Bill. As in true Jim style, he soon became the president of Epsilon Phi Sigma Fraternity. He loved Philadelphia and wanted to continue his leadership within the Greek-American community, so he called on his experience in high school and the Army to set his sights on something even greater. During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Jim was initiated into the AHEPA Hercules-Spartan Chapter #26 in 1949, which was the chapter for Center City, Philadelphia. He had no other siblings and virtually no family other than his mother, and he found great comfort and comradery from the brotherhood within the AHEPA family.
At this same time, Jim fell in love with an incredible woman, Thelma Chamers, and they were married on June 3, 1950. After completing his undergraduate degree at The Wharton School, Jim continued his desire for education and passion for leadership by earning his Juris Doctorate law degree in 1953 from George Washington Law School in Washington, DC. While attending law school at night, Jim worked for the State Department Visa office as a Foreign Affairs officer during the day. Moreover, he and his beautiful wife had their first child named Alexander.
Once graduated, he took his growing family back to Philadelphia to start their lives back home. Given the tenuous conditions in the country at that time, he knew there was a need to unite the Greek-Americans in the Philadelphia community after the war. Shortly after returning, Jim was elected the president of the AHEPA Hercules-Spartan chapter for years 1956 and 1957. He saw the increased growth and stability of the Greek community, as families began to migrate from Center City, Philadelphia to a neighboring suburb of Upper Darby. As a result, a new church was needed to accommodate the growing Greek Orthodox population. So of course, from 1960–1965, Jim accepted the responsibility and was elected the Chairman of the Building Committee for St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, PA.
This was a project that would forever be one of his greatest accomplishments and legacies in his namesake. While still Chairman in 1962, Jim was also elected president of the Federation of American Hellenic Societies of Philadelphia, which is an umbrella organization over all of the other Greek organizations and associations in the area. He gave speech after speech during those years to his Hellenic brothers and sisters. He most notably served as the Master of Ceremonies during the Greek Independence Day parades for over three decades. When a second AHEPA chapter was established, Thermopylae Chapter #445, Jim was the obvious choice to lead them and serve as their president. He served successfully in many more leadership capacities several times during his involvement with the chapter over the remainder of his life.
Moreover, Jim served as president of many Hellenic organizations in the Philadelphia area beginning in the late 1950’s. He saw the increasing need for an additional church to be built, given that many of the families were migrating to a nearby suburban neighborhood right outside the city limits called Upper Darby. Those families would travel into Philadelphia to the St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral to attend Sunday services and for other community activities, such as Greek school and athletic events, but it was becoming increasingly more difficult to do so.
There was a significant demand to build a new church, and it was an obvious choice by the community and congregation as to whom they wanted to lead this overwhelmingly challenging project – James D. Tanos. Jim was named the Chairman of the Building Committee in 1962.
While pursuing this daunting undertaking, James was firm in his confidence and commitment to get the church built on-time and within budget. In his resolve, his building committee members rallied behind his unwavering and steadfast leadership, whereby Jim motivated them to reach new heights under extremely challenging circumstances. Our father had told us on many occasions that he held nearly 500 meetings from 1962 to 1965 to discuss and determine the multitude of details required to successfully complete this honorable undertaking.
Finally, on May 11, 1963, His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos performed the groundbreaking services along with members of the various planning committees in attendance. On June 6, 1965, Bishop Germanos, the Metropolitan of Hierapolis who was representing Archbishop Iakovos, cemented the date stone into place at a Dedication Ceremony held at the church.
There was a “Dedication Day” banquet held in the brand new church social hall for its then nearly 300 founding families. Jim was presented with the “Service Award of Merit” from Metropolitan G. Polizoides and the Parish Board of Trustees as a symbol of their appreciation for his tireless service and effort as the Chairman of the Building Committee from 1962–1965.
Building the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church was one of the greatest achievements of Jim’s life. It was the culmination of his lifelong dedication to service the Greek-American community of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Today, a commemorative plaque still resides at the entrance of the Social Hall with his name prominently displayed in recognition and appreciation.
On this milestone anniversary, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church serves as a central focal point to the families in the Upper Darby community. Activities of every kind, such as baptisms, weddings, funerals and all ceremonies and celebrations of life, have been held at this lovely church over all these years. On that spectacular day in June 1965, Jim could not have been prouder to look up at the magnificent altar and give his deepest thanks to God for his many blessings.
Throughout that same time, Jim and Thelma had another son, Elliott, and many years later, had twin daughters named Elizabeth and Ellaina to complete their family. But in 1977, Jim had one more tremendous legacy that he wanted to leave as a leader of the Greek-American community. He was the founder, and general chairman of the tri-state Pan-Hellenic Olympic Track and Field Meet for the Greek-American youth in the New Jersey, Delaware and the Philadelphia metropolitan areas.
Many years of strategic planning of the tremendous amount of details were required to implement this historic and ambitious event, given that Jim was a stickler for perfection. Details such as the Olympic Theme to be played as a female and male athlete, who wore togas over their uniforms, carried a torch around the track to signify the start of the games. Each church with its banner and participants would march in behind, taking their place on the infield of the track, just like at the Olympics. Hundreds of Greek-American youth came out to represent their respective churches at this inaugural event. Jim proudly read Proclamations from the Mayor and the Governor, dedicating the day to the Greek-American Youth of the tri-state area. Ribbons and medals were given to the winners for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, as they stood on podiums wearing laurel wreaths, just as they did in ancient times.
In 1978-1979, Jim was elected as the AHEPA Power District 4 Athletic Director, Power District 4 Secretary in 1980, Power District 4 Lieutenant Governor in 1981, and then served as Power District Governor in 1982–1983. He was commissioned as a lifetime member of the AHEPA, and he was a member of the AHEPA District 4 Board of Directors when he very sadly passed away on January 30, 1994. That day, the Greek-American community had lost one of their greatest brothers and an exceptional steward of the Greek culture and heritage. He left an extraordinary legacy and was one of the greatest leaders of his time.
When the Greek community in Philadelphia and across the country learned about the unexpected death of their beloved brother, James D. Tanos, it was devastating news to all those who knew this heralded man.Their devoted leader for over three decades had suddenly been taken from them. Hundreds of friends, colleagues and community members alike came to pay their respects at Jim’s funeral, which was held at his beloved, St. Demetrios Church. The AHEPA delegation read a moving declaration for his lifetime of dedicated service and leadership. The local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, which he was always involved since his honorable discharge from the service, played Taps at his gravesite.
Fittingly, Jim was laid to rest on January 30, 1994, and his funeral services were held at his beloved St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, receiving all the grandeur and dignity reserved for a great man and respected leader. It was an extremely cold day in early February with snow on the ground. As the prayers were being read and the burial ceremony was concluding, the sounds of the children playing outside at a nearby elementary school suddenly stopped. It was as if they knew that the soul of a boy, who grew up to be a brilliant man and their ‘champion’ as a great leader, had been laid to rest at the place where his humble life 68 years prior had begun.
Proudly, in 2016 at the AHEPA Supreme convention in Las Vegas, the first ever ‘Special Recognition Award’ was presented by the Supreme President, John Galanis, to Jim posthumously for his outstanding service to the Greek-American youth community. The James D. Tanos Pan-Hellenic Track and Field Meet is the longest running AHEPA athletic event in the United States history for over 40 years. Jim’s dream had become a reality, and it is carried on to this day. This tremendous recognition would be his final legacy, officially archived for ages in the AHEPA Athletic Hall of Fame, along with other such great athletes as Pete Sampras and Greg Louganis.
James D. Tanos was a great teacher, living by example the life of a Greek Orthodox Christian, as well as being an amazing leader with incredible integrity and honor. He was a true American hero and gentleman in every sense. He was also a perfect example of achieving the American dream, possessing significant characteristics of tremendous perseverance, dedication, and devotion. He had an incredible passion for achievement, as well as having an unfaltering dedication and a demonstrated commitment to excellence.
He lived a life of true service, making an unforgettable difference in the lives of both Greeks and fellow Americans alike. As we say in the Greek Orthodox Church for those who have passed, may his memory be eternal.
In loving memory and respectfully submitted
Elizabeth A. Tanos-Priest CFA, MBA
Ellaina D. Tanos AEP, CFP, ChFC, CTFA, MBA