The rural town of Salisbury, Maryland is an unlikely place from which a young man imbued with the high ideals and values of Hellenism would make his way to the world stage. It is in this small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that on February 3, 1933, Panagiotis Spyros Sarbanes was born, who would in time grow into the legendary Senator Paul S. Sarbanes. Yet, like all of us, his story begins before his birth.
Spyros Sarbanes immigrated to America from the small village of Richea, marrying his fellow Laconian Matina Tsigounis, who had immigrated from the village of Elika. Spyros and Matina owned and operated the Mayflower restaurant in Salisbury, where they worked hard to raise and educate three children, and, yes, Paul Sarbanes worked in the family restaurant too. That’s where he learned to start his workday with: “Good morning. How may I help you?” The senator frequently recalled the lessons of his childhood, that were, at root, the foundations of his character.
Each day, his father would put on a tie, open his restaurant, and serve his customers. The younger Sarbanes asked his father, “Why do you keep on wearing a tie now that the restaurant has slowed with the war?” To which Spyros replied, “I wear a tie to show my customers that I respect them.” Spyros did not have the luxury of a formal education, but he was an avid reader, and he instilled in his children the importance of an education. Once, the young Sarbanes, in a momentary fit of rebellion, pronounced that he might not pursue his studies. Spyros grabbed his son by the shirt collar, scolding him: “You may grow up to be a bum, but you are going to be an educated bum!”
As fate would have it, Paul Sarbanes was extraordinarily talented and would come to excel in his academic pursuits. When Princeton University sought to increase the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of its student body, a recruiter from the college paid a visit to Wicomico County High School. The school principal was asked if there were any standout students he might suggest for admission to Princeton, and Paul Sarbanes was off to the Ivy League.
Matina Sarbanes was known around Salisbury as a caring and upright member of the community. She quietly supported neighbors in need, engaged in civic activities, and made strong friendships across her adopted community. Matina set the standards for dignity and empathy that gave her children their moral compass. Princeton has a reputation as being the most elite university in America, but Paul Sarbanes did not attend as a scion of a wealthy, established, upper-class American family. He was unabashedly the son of working-class Greek immigrants. At Princeton, he was able to amplify his naturally gifted intelligence by embracing the values and convictions of his family. Paul, of average height, played basketball for Princeton, made many lifelong friends, and excelled academically. He was awarded Princeton’s highest undergraduate honor, the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, and graduated magna cum laude. He went on to win a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford’s Balliol College, graduating with a first-class degree.
Unbeknownst to the young Sarbanes, one day on a trip to visit his son at Princeton, Spyros knocked on the door of Harold W. Dodds, the president of the university. He informed the person who opened the door that he had a baked ham that he wanted to deliver. President Dodds was so moved that he treated Spyros to cake and coffee. That expression of gratitude led to a lasting friendship between the Greek immigrant restaurateur and the head of one of America’s greatest academic institutions.
At Oxford, Paul met Christine Dunbar, a woman who matched him in intelligence and integrity, and notably a student of Greek and Classical literature. She had studied Ancient Greek and spoke Modern Greek better than he did. Paul returned to America, attended Harvard Law School, married Christine, and upon graduation committed himself to a life of family and public service. In 1970, he won election to the United States House of Representatives. On July 26, 1974, in a televised hearing, he became an international political figure by presenting the first article of impeachment that forced President Richard Nixon from office.
The year 1974 is regrettably memorable to Hellenism as the year Turkey invaded and occupied Cyprus. The then Congressman Sarbanes took on a leading role in confronting Turkey. Even before the invasion of Cyprus, while many in the diaspora did not speak out against Greece’s military dictatorship, Sarbanes was unequivocally opposed to the juntas. In 1976, Paul was elected to the Senate, where he served until his retirement in 2007. In the Senate, he had become the chairman of the Banking Committee, where he led the reform of federal securities laws following the 2002 accounting scandals with the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In his five decades of public service, the notable accomplishments of Paul Sarbanes are well known, yet the attributes that define who he was as a leader are far more evident in who he was as a man.
Paul Sarbanes did not wear his Hellenism on his sleeve. He wore it in his heart. A Baltimore Sun editorial once commented that Senator Sarbanes had successfully overcome his Greek heritage through his academic success. On one of the few occasions in which he engaged with the press – as he would say, “they have barrels of ink” – he sent a letter to the editor informing him that his Greek heritage was not an obstacle to who he is, but to the contrary, was integral to his success. On another occasion, a famous Maryland politician very publicly chided a lady working at McDonald’s for her broken English. Hearing of this incident, Sarbanes was infuriated as he felt that woman could have been anyone’s mother including his own.
When the US Post Office sought to change its mail delivery policy in a rural community, the senator challenged the service to explain why the big houses on the street where the white residents lived would receive their mail through the letterbox as usual, but down the street in the small houses where the black residents lived mail would be put in a receptacle out on the curb. The senator stopped that discriminatory policy, demonstrating, as his son John recalled, that you can make a difference with “small things that stand for big principles.”
At the memorial service for Christine Sarbanes, who was eulogized by then Vice President Biden, Senator Barbara Mikulski said, “Christine and Paul raised a wonderful family, with three children who write laws, write books, and right wrongs!” Paul Sarbanes the mentor always challenged those around him to do their best, and today the Sarbanes political alumni strive to make the world more fair, more peaceful and more humane. Senator Sarbanes had accumulated all the instruments to achieve a legacy of wealth, status and power. Yet, for him, life was not about what you have, but what you do with what you have. His legacy in public service is that which he did best, standing up for the little guy.
Andreas N. Akaras previously served on the staff of Congressman John P. Sarbanes.