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U.S. Ikarians heading to city for 'family reunion'

Monday, August 25, 2003

By Lillian Thomas and Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A century ago, when the Wright Brothers were working up to their wobbly run along a North Carolina beach, a group with a far older claim on originating human flight founded a society in Pittsburgh.

"We come from the island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea," said George Vassilaros Sr. of the Pan-Icarian Brotherhood. "It's named for Icarus, a mythical character who flew too close to the sun."

That he thus melted his wax wings and crashed to his death in the sea doesn't deter the Greek organization's members from billing themselves as being the real "first in flight." They plan to have a tethered balloon in Point State Park announcing that claim when members of the brotherhood come to Pittsburgh for their annual convention and centennial celebration over Labor Day weekend.

The group's members trace their lineage to Ikaria, a wing-shaped island where fishing and olive growing have long been major occupations. Some were born there; many still have family and homes there. About 10,000 people live on Ikaria, and thousands of expatriates around the world have maintained ties to the island. About 3,000 people are expected at the convention of the Pan-Icarian Brotherhood, the oldest Hellenic organization in the Western Hemisphere.

"We call this convention the biggest family reunion in the U.S.," said Joanne Melacrinos, of Brookline, the club archivist.

The Pittsburgh chapter is one of 25 total, 23 in United States and two in Canada, said Mike Aivalotis, of Oakmont, a member of the Supreme Lodge, the ruling body of the national group. Pittsburgh's 242 members make it the largest of the chapters.

The brotherhood got its start in Verona, where the group still has its headquarters.

Ikarians began to settle in the Pittsburgh area at the end of the 19th century.

"Verona was a prominent stopping place for Ikarians; there was a railroad there and mills with jobs for families," said George Vassilaros Jr., the president of the Pittsburgh chapter.

"We did work there such as industrial painting, working at a water plant, steel mills; we painted smokestacks at mills."

Ikarians made masts for ships from cypress trees on the island in medieval times, and historically were expert mast riggers and knot tiers.

"They could reach high places that other people couldn't reach," he said.

The group was founded in Pittsburgh in 1903.

"As more people came to the U.S., the Ikarians didn't want their people to be alone and forgotten in their old age. Our group was started basically as a death-benefit society -- we would collect money to give our people a proper funeral," said Vassilaros Sr. They also sent money back to families still on the island.

Like many ethnic fraternal organizations, it was a mutual aid society, Melacrinos said. It helped individual members of the community economically, and as families became prosperous they would give back, working to help newcomers.

"There were a lot of industrial accidents. They helped pay for bills in hospitals, they would send something to families, to widows," she said. "They also got together in order to have a collective voice -- there was a lot of anti-foreign bias at that time."

The brotherhood began to raise money for education and health care on Ikaria. Members built a school, then a hospital there. They raised money to contribute to the war effort during World War II, and again to help the island recuperate after the war.

The brotherhood has a foundation based in Pittsburgh that gives 27 scholarships annually.

The group's latest project is a personal care home.

In addition to financial aid and fund raising, it kept traditions and social ties alive. Many chapters offer Greek language classes for children in America, dinners and social events, and try to preserve documents and traditions.

The local chapter has regular dinners. Most members speak Greek, cook Greek, and many still have family and/or property on Ikaria. There are a number of married couples in the Pittsburgh chapter who are Ikarian on both sides. Even when they don't marry within the island family tree, they tend to maintain ties.

"When they marry someone who's not even Greek [the spouses] become part of this, too -- they get ingrained, too," said Melacrinos. "I guess we're just too much for them."

The convention begins Friday and continues through Monday at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, Downtown. In addition to business meetings, it will include music, dancing, centennial celebrations and an outdoor cafenion featuring Greek food in Point State Park that will be open to the public.

Lillian Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-3566. Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254.

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