May 102015
 

My friend Chris Farlekas died last week. He was 86.

I never knew either of my grandfathers, and my last living grandparent, Grammie, passed away when I was 9. So it’s always been convenient, when trying to explain the role that Chris has played in my life, to start by saying he’s sort of an adoptive grandfather. But that never seemed quite right to me.

I think it’s because grandfather-with-quotes implies a certain directionality of the relationship that just wasn’t there. Your “grandfather” is your old neighbor you got to know because he made lemonade for you in the summer, or the guy you met while volunteering at the nursing home that you called gramps for fun until it kind of stuck. In these cases, you’re the one doing the adopting. That wasn’t the case with Chris and me. Besides, he called me brother.

There’s also the problem of calling him “my” adoptive grandfather. Because it would be absurd for me to suggest I’m feeling uniquely devastated right now. But here’s where words fail me. Because I can’t figure out a way to convey the superhuman reach of this man’s life.

Korean War medic. Civil Rights marcher (and near martyr). Vietnam War correspondent. Community journalist. Community activist. Local arts patron. Domestic abuse counselor and interventionist. Literal saver of lives. Figurative saver of lives. Emergency shelter provider. Minister. Friend, son, brother, spiritual healer. In 46 years at our local paper, the Times Herald-Record, Chris had interviews ranging from Joe DiMaggio to Henry Kissinger to the Dalai Lama. There were books in his house signed to him by people who were famous when my parents were kids. When I got into Dartmouth he took me to meet Frank Gilroy ’50, Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, whose grandson Sam would also be in my class. I think he met the pope once. Jean Paul II, that is.

Our town was not big enough for this man’s love. And yet he never got too big for us. In semi-retirement from the Record, Chris took up the promotion of local high school and amateur theater. That’s how I met him. Or first became aware of him, I guess. I was in my high school auditorium watching a full dress rehearsal for Hello, Dolly! and I noticed an old man walking around stage taking pictures 3 feet in front of the actors’ faces. That’s just how Chris operated. He wasn’t shy about inserting himself into a scene.

It would be two years before Chris inserted himself into my life. That year we were doing Jesus Christ Superstar and one evening I went over to our Jesus – Pat Dunn’s – house. Chris was there, dropping off a pie, I think, which even if wrong is as reasonable a guess as any since Chris was also a prolific baker. I think after he left we were going to play poker, but I don’t really remember any of that. I remember that evening as the moment Chris decided he wanted to get to know me. We talked for a few minutes at a booth in the Dunns’ basement. All the while he studied my face. “You have a really big nose,” he said, finally. “It’s true, I do.” “What do you think is the greatest song ever written?”

For all the impact Chris had, for all that he gave to the community, when people talk or write about him I think they miss one of his most important qualities. Some people are really good at making you feel they’re interested in what you have to say, listening intently as you share, over time, stories that build an understanding of who you are. Chris, though, would know everything important about you after a 5-minute conversation. It happened with me, when a week after our first meeting he sent me a book via my school’s musical director that perfectly captured how I aspired to approach life. I saw it again with my mom, when he met my parents for the first time (at our house; he brought an apple pie). The conversation was meandering easily until he turned to my mom and asked her a question about her past so pointed and relevant it brought tears to her eyes.

How he would think to ask such a question has to this day been a mystery to me. I asked him about it once or twice, and he explained it by saying that in Korea, he had to decide very quickly whom he could trust with his life, and whom he couldn’t. So he learned to understand people’s character quickly. But I think there was more to it than that. I still don’t know how religious I am, but seeing Chris cut through all the barriers people put up between themselves and the rest of the world, minutes after meeting them, well, it felt like watching someone work a miracle every time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the times I saw Chris, and I wish I’d written things down as we’d gone along because it would make one heck of an eclectic list. There was the time we had dinner with the Bruderhof community in Walden; the time we watched a rehearsal of a play Sam Wright (Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway; you’d also know him as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid; Chris knew him as a friend) was directing in…I want to say Fishkill; a bizarre but beautiful silent film we saw in Newburgh about Franciscan monks; lunches because some restaurant wanted to give him lunch and he wanted to talk; benefits at local communities and churches, including one to raise money to replace the stained glass at a church that had burned down… and at so many of these things, I got to meet some of the other people in Chris’s universe. It felt almost like being a member of a very special club; Friends of Chris is the foundation that will now carry on his work. But there was always this thing that passed between people introduced by Chris. You’d just know, as you extended your hand, this person was either exceptionally good, exceptionally interesting, exceptionally vulnerable, or some combination of these. Occasionally Chris would clue me in ahead of time. “We’re going to see a veteran with PTSD,” he’d say. Other times it was a young kid who’d gotten kicked out of his house and was living in one of Chris’s spare bedrooms.

So yes, it was an awfully big club. One time when I was at his house on Gardner Avenue in Middletown, I noticed a water stain spreading across his living room ceiling. The thing about giving away all your income is that you live on a razor thin margin, and I was concerned about how Chris was going to get this fixed. But all he wanted to talk about was the show he was producing the next week to raise money for the poor. We were heading out to Middletown’s Paramount Theater to confirm some details. As we hopped into his old red Pontiac convertible, I said, “Chris, you really need to get that ceiling taken care of.” I’m not even sure he heard me. But the next time I was at the house, the stain was gone, the plumbing repaired. When you touch thousands of hearts, at least a few are bound to belong to contractors and plumbers.

Even ten years ago, as I was preparing to graduate high school, Chris’s health was in jeopardy. Doctors at one point told him he was down to about 22% heart function, and gave him anywhere between months and a few years to live. So it was hard to leave him, when I went to college, not knowing how he’d be. But we spoke regularly. After all, he told me before I left that if I didn’t do something amazing with my life, “I’ll find you and kick your ass.” So I was pretty excited to tell him when I decided to sign up for Bike and Build, a bike trip across America to raise money and awareness for affordable housing. I remember intending to not even mention my fundraising requirement to him, as I knew he had other priorities back home. But he got around me. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” he said, on that very same phone call. “I’ve been saving money for a trip to London, but I want you to have it instead. It’s $1,000.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not even with the knowledge that might have been his last chance to see London. For a man known for giving up entire paychecks to serve others, I’m not even sure this particular act of generosity stood out.

It’s hard, being here in China, trying to understand I’ll never see Chris again. But I think the hardest thing is this feeling that now no one else will get to discover him, to appreciate who he is. Reading the above I feel I’ve failed miserably in capturing what he meant to just me, one person. The whole world ought to know what we lost last week.

Chris did make it to London, by the way, with the support of another friend. In fact he lived for another 10 years after telling me his time was limited. And even after Bike and Build he wasn’t done giving. In December 2006 he sponsored a benefit concert I organized for my friend Marianna, again without a second’s hesitation, though this time I came asking for help. And from college until I left for China he served admirably in the role of chief girlfriend screener, though he never did tell me what he really thought until the relationships were over. So maybe he failed a little bit on that end. But I don’t really know how to deal with the fact I’ll never get to introduce him to anyone again. Maybe this piece can help, just a little bit.

I want to wrap this up nice and neatly, but to me that would imply closure and I don’t think I’m there yet. If you want to read a little more about Chris, I found this piece in the Record that is much better written than his obituary. And if you’re reading this from home, look out for a celebration of life ceremony in June. Chris always said for his funeral he’d want his friends to put on a show, and for the entry fee would be donations for the poor.

Chris will have his ashes interred at the Orange County Veterans Memorial Cemetery, with full military honors.

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 Posted by on May 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm

  6 Responses to “My friend, my brother, Chris Farlekas”

  1. John, this tribute is one of the most sincere, wonderful, sad and beautiful piece of writing i’ve read in a long time. I found myself in tears and weeping at many points: when he gave your his london savings, when you left for college not knowing if and when you’ll see chris again, when you had “the feeling that no one will get to discover him”. I’ve lost many important people in my life in the last five years, my grandmother, my father, my uncle, people who were central to my life and people who were truly phenomenal. I wish I could write like you and capture even just a snapshot of what life was like with these people in it.

    You are very lucky to have had Chris in your life. Some souls are meant to have their stories immortalized in words, and others born to write these stories.

  2. Chris Farlekas: A Life of Philótimo
    by Julie Ziavras

    There is an ancient Greek word that has been used in Greece throughout the millennia which, to me, sums up Chris’ life. It is one of those profound Greek words that defies translation.
    Philótimo is a word that describes a way of life that epitomizes the highest virtue a person can aspire to achieve in his life time. According to Wikipedia, it literally means “love of honor”, although it really describes a complex array of virtues. It is about honor, respect and “doing good” for your family and society through random acts of generosity and sacrifice without expecting anything in return. Philótimo demonstrates what kind of a person you are and the manner in which you were brought up. It is also an appreciation and admiration for heritage and ancestors.

    The Apostle Paul deliberately used the word philótimo in the original Greek Biblical texts to describe his life’s work and taught believers that they should strive to conduct their lives with philótimo – a life that is above reproach. An ancient Greek philosopher wrote that “Philótimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.” Philótimo to a Greek is essentially a way of life.

    Being a Greek American was a badge of pride for Chris. It came with the responsibility to represent his heritage by living a life of philótimo. Our common heritage was a bond that was strengthened when we realized that his father came from a tiny village in the southern Peloponnese which was just a stone’s throw from the village where my grandfather was born. It was obvious to me that his Greek immigrant parents had instilled in him the significance of the word’s many meanings. As a man of letters, he enjoyed discussing them with me. It became evident to me that he had made philótimo his life’s calling and mission.

    Chris’ family was his community, which was as dear to him as his closest relatives. He was once offered a position to write for the NY Times, but he declined it because it was not as meaningful to him as writing for and about the community here with the Times Herald Record. Throughout his life, he advocated for the needy and against all forms of discrimination. He opened his heart and gave selflessly… to battered women, as a medic in the Korean War, to the poor and homeless, to veterans with PTSD, to aspiring performers, to those with cancer in need of assistance dying and for endless other causes. Even those of us that were closest to him never knew the full scope of his generosity. He touched so many lives in profound and lasting ways.

    Chris was also our koumbáro, the best man at our wedding – the one who put the wedding crowns on our heads at the altar as we shared our vows. But in the Greek culture being a koumbáro is more than just acting as a best man during the ceremony. It means that you have become part of the couples’ family and life. Ken and I will miss our dear relative and friend who enriched our lives in so many ways. It breaks our hearts that he will no longer share his marvelous stories with us. You epitomized philótimo, dear friend, and have enriched our lives. It has been a privilege to be part of your family.

  3. It saddens my to find out today that Chris has passed on. I auditioned for him in 1983 and became a member of the Grass Roots Players. We did the first production of Clothes For A Summer Hotel, True West and several others. Chris was a great supporter and encouraged me back then to persu a career in acting, which I did. Every time I would get discouraged I would think of Chris’s words or our phone conversations which were always so supportive. The last time I spoke to Chris was right before he went to assisted living, I’ve followed him on line, today for some reason I was thinking of Chris and had the need to google him, it’s then that I learned of his passing. He called me brother of the knee, we both had knee surgery around the same time. He brought me a copy of “for whom the bell tolls” from Moscow. At times he called me Michael and other times Hem for Hemingway. RIP my friend ! You touched us all !

  4. Does anyone know when and where the celebration of Chris’s life wil lbe held?

  5. CHRIS FARLEKAS TRIBUTE CONCERT, an afternoon of musical entertainment and remembrance

    The concert, featuring an outstanding array of prominent actors, singers and musicians celebrating the life of the popular journalist, activist, philanthropist and patron of the arts who passed away May 5, 2015, will be held at the Paramount Theater, 17 South Street, Middletown, NY 10940 on Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $10.

    Master of Ceremonies and emcee, film and television producer Declan Baldwin (Still Alice, Far From Heaven, Adventureland), grew up in Middletown and was a lifelong friend of Chris’.

    Opening the concert is a proclamation by the City of Middletown’s mayor Joseph DeStefano declaring November 8 as Chris Farlekas Day.

    Featured artists from the Hudson Valley include musicians Evan Mack (Angel of the Amazon), Steve Margoshes (FAME, The Musical), singers Julie Ziavras (soprano), Alice Shane, Barrett Mack, Janet Droll (Red Hot Mama), Mary Ellen Nelligar (Judy Garland Cabaret), Patrick Dunn (A Christmas Carol, Pirates of Penzance, Jekyll & Hyde), actors Harry O’Reilly (Hamburger Hill, Tower Heist) Allison Bartlett (Sesame Street, The Sopranos), William Ritch, Greg Giblin and others. Musical Director is Joel Flowers. All of the performing artists are donating their talents for the concert.

    The program is subject to change. Updates will be posted regularly on Facebook at Chris Farlekas Tribute Concert where updates are posted.

    Tickets can be purchased in advance online at MiddletownParamount.com or at the Paramount Theater Box Office ticket window (845-346-4195) Monday through Friday, 1:00-4:00 PM. Tickets will also be available at the door on the afternoon of the performance.

    The concert is a fundraising event for the benefit of The Friends of Chris Farlekas Fund, a component fund of the Community Foundation of Orange and Sullivan that was established to support Chris’ favorite charities and arts organizations. Donations will be gratefully accepted before and after the concert. There is reserved orchestral seating for donors and sponsors.

    The concert is sponsored in part by The Orange County Arts Council, The City of Middletown, The Delaware & Hudson CANVAS, AAA Taxes, Middletown Press, Big Indie Pictures and other generous donors.

  6. I was missing Chris today. I cried wishing I could tell him about a show I’m writing and how a story he shared with me is the opening for the show. I miss him. I miss him in that deepdowndreadful way one can suddenly miss someone. Again.

    Chris knew me from the time I was born through his friendship with my father. They were best-buds back in the day. I came to know him when I was 23ish. He and I grew closer over the years and I shamelessly adored him.

    Thank you for writing this blog post. I discovered it after having done a search using his name and life was incredibly kind when it led me here. I say that because I was searching with the hope of somehow feeling Chris close to me. Your blog provided that closeness and so much more.

    I also felt his gone-ness yet was moved and motivated after reading your writing as well as reading the response by Julie Ziavras. I am not the same as I was before landing here among your Wander Years. I am stronger. I am more determined to bring my show to life and will do so with even more passion having read your post and the responses.

    Thank you. A thousand thank-you’s and then, a thousand more. Even then, gratitude would be looking for a better word for me to use to express how much I appreciate being able to connect with Chris via all life led me to here today. Perhaps I’ll discover a Greek word far more fitting for the thankfulness filling my entire being at this moment. Until then, please know you moved my heart and brought Chris closer to me. For that, for you and your brotherfriendship with Chris, I’m forever grateful.

    Respectfully,

    Ruby Lynn Willis

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