Aegean To Appleton: The Golden Greek

By Savvas Sfairopoulos

Coming to Lawrence as an international student from Greece, I realized quite early that, unlike other students, I had an extra responsibility. I come from a country which once served as the cradle of civilization by giving birth to individuals who molded human history to their will and left their marks upon it.

Unfortunately, however, in my country’s modern history, as the late great Christopher Hitchens once put it, “there is a close relationship between national humiliation and political radicalization.”

As a student from Greece, I thereby feel that it is my duty to break down the stereotypes related to my nationality whilst also promoting my personal identity. In trying to achieve this, I often find myself drawing inspiration from past Greeks who decided to follow the path less travelled and eventually became world phenomena. I have thereby decided to dedicate this article to Aristotle Onassis, also known as “The Golden Greek,” whose life story is an immense source of motivation for me.

Aristotle “Aristos” Onassis was born on Jan. 15, 1906 in Smyrna — in modern-day Turkey — to a rather wealthy family. His father, a tobacco merchant, wanted to send his son to Oxford University to become an educated man and to join the academic world. Young Aristos, however, had other interests: playing football in the nearby alley, going swimming with his friends and oftentimes playing practical jokes to impress girls of his age.

The Great Fire of Smyrna, which took place on Sept. 13, 1922 and is of hotly disputed origin, resulted in enormous waves of Greek and Armenian refugees fleeing Anatolia to find shelter in Greece. Witnessing the horrific deaths of his friends and neighbors, and the utter destruction of his hometown stigmatized Onassis for the rest of his life. The plight of the refugee crisis combined with his family’s poor living conditions upon their arrival to Greece urged him to take a leap of faith; armed with his immalleable spirit and nothing but $60 in his pocket, he decided to take the next ship to Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires was booming back in the early ‘20s. With a brand new subway network and the emergence of cinema and the arts, the capital of Argentina was a favored destination for European immigrants. Argentina was a world famous center of business, and Onassis was the right person to take advantage of that. As soon as he arrived there, he started washing dishes for a living while also working as a night watchman.

Shortly after, he found a roommate and shared with him a single-roomed apartment with only one bed. Aristos arranged it so that he could work as a telephone operator at night and sleep in the morning, while his roommate worked during the day and slept at night.

Working the night shift at the telephone company, Onassis had a lot of free time in his hands and thus decided to eavesdrop on international calls to learn languages, while at the same time extracting useful business information and using it to his advantage. He spent all the money he earned on expensive clothing and perfume in order to infiltrate Buenos Aires’ most exclusive bars and then befriend the most important individuals there; politicians, lawyers and business executives were all wowed by his charisma and his witty temperament.

Using the knowledge he had acquired thus far, he convinced some of these businessmen to fund his first steps in the tobacco market. In order to advertise his brand of cigarettes, he scattered empty packets across the city’s busiest streets and train stations. By the time he was 25, he had made his first million and realized that the shipping business was the future.

Aristos had an unprecedented talent, something that very few in the business possessed. He had an almost infallible instinct that guided him straight to new opportunities to expand his empire. He went into the shipping business during the Great Depression and managed to buy six brand-new Canadian ships for a fourth of their original price. He realized how important oil would become during the industrial revolution of the ‘40s and ordered the very first 15,000-ton oil tanker in the world.

Shipping was flourishing, and he took advantage of that by buying larger, more imposing tankers. He kept coming up with new tricks like signing coal transportation contracts for ships that had not yet been built. Once, when an Arab prince tried to fool him by altering the terms of their agreement, Aristosotle signed the papers with a pen whose ink would disappear within an hour.

Onassis was called “The Golden Greek” because he reached the top through painstaking effort. As I stride proudly into my next class here at Lawrence, I look back at this man’s life and think, “I, too, can do it.”