Emmanuel E. Velivasakis: The Internationally-Renowned Structural Engineer Now Building a Cultural Legacy
by Chris Salboudis
Cultural Crete USA is a nonprofit foundation established by the internationally-renowned Civil Engineer Emmanuel E. Velivasakis and his wife Orsa approximately seven years ago to preserve and promote the culture and traditions of their native Island of Crete – including the music, dance, people, etc. – via a series of educational print and media publications, seminars, performances and cultural activities. The foundation hosts and sponsors Cretan events and initiatives across the world to help promote a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Cretan culture and heritage.
In January 2016, Mr. Velivasakis prepared an inspirational call to action, stating: “Many of us are indeed privileged to be of Hellenic descent and to have roots from the island of Crete, a dear and unique place, where one discovers the codes and cultural values it bears from the depths of the centuries. A place where the sun always shines with goodhearted and proud people who over the centuries have generously tasted both glory and death. Crete is the perfume and the flavor of tsikoudia, the sound of Lyra, the λεβεντιά of the Cretan people and the pride of Crete. This is our very special Cretan Heritage!… During these rather difficult times that we live in, with wars, severe economic difficulties and political leaders who seem to lead us to nowhere, we have a duty to keep our Cretan & Hellenic Spirit alive. We must not allow for our Culture, our Music, our Dances and our Humanity to become assimilated during this era of globalization. Are we ready to face this challenge? My wife and I have taken up this challenge head on, and establish and fund Cultural Crete USA.”
Manny and Orsa Velivasakis have been married for 37 years. They have two sons: Lefteris, who lives in Florida with his wife Sophia, daughter Melina and son Manolis, and George, who lives in New York. Cultural Crete is fundamentally a family-run organization headed by the collaborative efforts of the Velivasakis family as well as Manny’s long-standing Executive Assistant from Thornton Tomasetti, Georgia Kokkinidou, who serves as Secretary of the foundation, and Professor Maria Hnarakis, Musicologist, who is heavily involved in the research and development aspects of all of their projects.
Moreover, the Velivasakis family has faithfully served their local Parishes in New York and Florida and supported countless national activities hosted through the Pancretan Association of America and other Greek and Cretan communities world-wide.
In an exclusive interview with NEO, Mr. Velivasakis explains that he and his family are dedicated to serving various Greek Orthodox and Cretan organizations out of a deep-seated affection and appreciation for the island of his birth, for its culture and music and the rich legacy it represents. “Kazantzakis said that being Cretan is a big responsibility, and he was right, but many don’t take it seriously. Crete is part of the vast the mosaic of Greece and each of us has the right to place our little stone in that mosaic. Today’s society focuses much more on money and life and the whole idea of a unique culture has been diluted to a great degree. With all the focus on media and communication in today’s society it’s extremely difficult to preserve a unique culture. Crete is blending with the rest of the world, perhaps as part of the problem of what comes with globalism. There’s nothing wrong with globalism, but there is clearly a need to preserve our values and heritage in a world where everything is changing and diverging from the past, where we are in danger of losing the past and might ultimately talk about it as a mere history. It’s important to preserve the thoughts and messages relayed in our music, dance, writing and art, to promote it to our people here in the US and worldwide – and especially in Crete – who are in jeopardy of forgetting their roots. We especially want this preserved and made available to the youth.”
In his Keynote address at Philo4Thought’s 2014 Spring Conference on Entrepreneurial Innovation, Mr. Velivasakis, an internationally-renowned civil engineer, shared one of his favorite catch phrases: “If it ain’t broken, break it then make it better.” Born and raised in Kamariotis village in Heraklion, Crete, he shared the story of his humble beginnings in the U.S. and his progressive trials and advancement, which formed the journey towards innovation and remarkable success as a leader in his field, primarily as an Engineer (and ultimately as Vice President and a major shareholder) at Thornton-Tomasetti, with which he has been affiliated since 1975.
Projects managed and/or completed under Mr. Velivasakis’ supervision include the 1000m Kingdom Tower in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), the 520m Financial Center in Taipei (Twain), the structural analysis and restoration of the Capitol dome in Washington D.C., and the restoration of the Empire State Building and Ground Zero, at World Trade Center.
Mr. Velivasakis was in charge of the structural design for the seismic modernization of the Ataturk airport in Constaninople, Turkey. While in the City, during the aftermath of the 1999 quake, he had visited at the Ecumenical Patriarchate and several of the Greek Orthodox Churches in the region, where he volunteered his professional services for seismic damage evaluation.
An award-winning article on the Structural Analysis and Evaluation of the U.S. Capitol Dome, based on the forensic research and structural development of the Velivasakis’ team, was featured on the cover-page of the prestigious Civil Engineering magazine in 1999.
In the wake of the September 11th tragedy, the Velivasakis’ team was again called upon to lead in efforts to provide informational and technical support in the search and rescue efforts, at which time he personally directed a multi-unit team consisting of 300 engineers in those critical weeks following the terrorist attack.
Beyond the creative and strategic vision that enabled him to design a broad range of cutting-edge commercial, educational and religious facilities, Mr. Velivasakis is even more well-known for building, supporting and preserving communities, which is, in fact, his global legacy.
He serves as an Adjunct Professor of Structural Engineering at the Institute of Design & Construction, where he teaches graduate-level courses to Architects and other Construction professionals. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor of Architectural Engineering at New York Institute of Technology and as a guest lecturer at various universities including Pratt Institute, Columbia University and California Polytechnic Institute. Since 2005, he has been on the Advisory Board of the CCNY School of Engineering, advising the Dean on academic curriculum and industry-related issues.
Over the past 30 years, Mr. Velivasakis has been actively involved with the Parish Council at Our Savior in Rye New York, where he was elected to the positions of President and Chairman of the Hellenic School and occasionally served as an amateur Cantor. He has been awarded several honors during this time in recognition of his faithful dedication to philanthropic leadership and stewardship in the Greek Orthodox church. These honors include his induction as an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of America (bestowed by Patriarch Bartholomew in 2001), the Gold Cross of the Order of the Phoenix (2004) by the Hellenic Republic, and the Gold Cross of the Order of the St. Mark (bestowed by the Patriarch and Pope of Alexandria and all Africa, Theodore II. in 2009).
He has also earned accolades for his impeccable technical and strategic expertise in the face of major disaster relief and community revitalization projects and for the outstanding support he has offered his global community. These awards include The Silver Medal of the Foundation for Research and Technology of Crete for helping to establish Crete University Press (1998), The Gold Medal of the Polytechnic University of Crete (1999), the Diamond Award of the US Consulting Engineers Council (2001 & 2002), an New York City Certificate of Appreciation for his service at Ground Zero (2002), the Eupalinos Award from the Department of Civil Engineering at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki (2010), and New York State Certificate of Lifetime Achievement for his service to Hellenic Young Professionals and the Greek American community at large (2014).
Mr. Velivasakis has juggled multiple professional, civic and academic schedules since his early college days while working tirelessly to preserve the exceptional family and cultural values that are, in fact, the heart and soul of the Cultural Crete initiative. He has been actively involved with various Cretan-American organizations at the local and national levels, notable as President of the Pancretan Association of America (2005-2009), leading a particularly exciting exploration of Alexandria (Egypt) in their 2009 Convention. He has also been heavily involved with the Pancretan Endowment Fund (PEF) for the various universities of Crete since 1986. Programs supported by the PEF include the establishment and maintenance of Crete University Press; DIAS summer-courses; internships and seminars for Greek-American youth; and the Botanical Park for the Preservation of the Flora and Fauna. Mr. Velivasakis Chaired the PEF for 8 years and served as Executive Vice President and President of the Hellenic American National Council, an umbrella organization for over 35 associations of which the Hellenic American Omogenia is comprised.
When asked about his vision for Cultural Crete, Mr. Velivasakis says, “My first idea was to sponsor a few projects. From there the concept blossomed into the support of major projects like the preservation of the local unknown musicians who are largely unpublished but carry the authentic music of Crete, especially of the old musicians, recorded by amateurs. There’s a great deal of influence from around the world – some good, some not – and the music has evolved, as it should, from one person sitting at the center and playing. We want to showcase the originals, the positive evolution of the Repertorio….”
His ultimate vision for the foundation is to establish a cyber museum of Cretan music and culture where scholars and musicians can record, report, and store thousands of recordings of Crete’s cultural legacy. “We’d provide the promotional support and fund the research, offering a small stipend to volunteers who know how to preserve and present the material in a format that the current world will understand and appreciate, which is also essential to the success of our efforts. The truth is that you can write a book about anything, but if it just sits on the shelves, what good is it?” This project is currently in its conceptual stages, but the team is confident that it will take shape in the very near future.
When asked about the span of the research being covered at the foundation, Mr. Velivasakis says, “We have reached where we couldn’t reach as Kazantzakis would say…. And there are always more projects brewing. There’s one we took up a month ago about the old music of Greece. I don’t have much information yet, but it will be again a volume and music from various parts of Greece.”
At present, Cultural Crete has been discovering, researching and publishing information on the various influences on Cretan musicians, particularly those in the US…. There’s a strong influence from the blues music of the 1920s and 30s and from Asia minor as well.” The book Milie Mou Kriti Ap’ta Palia (Crete, Tell Me About Your Old Songs) and its corresponding 8-CD compilation is based on the work of musical archivists in Crete, Athens, Constaninople, and throughout the US (New York, Salt Lake City, Colorado Mines, Chicago) preserved in the form of records dating back to the 1900s-1920s. “We’ve republished Café Aman Amerika, a compilation of songs from Greek Americans back in the 20s and 30s performed in a unique Greek-American lingo, which was so successful that we used it for fundraising purposes. It’s part of a world we should not lose.”
Another ongoing project involves the research and preservation of various Rizitika songs, traditionally sung in a capella in Chania, Crete. Professor Hnaraki offers the following description: “The History of RIZITIKA SONGS project has been undertaken by a group of dedicated Rizitika Singers and Musicologists visiting various mountainous villages in Western Crete to record local variations of the RIZITIKA Songs. The ultimate purpose is to record, catalog and preserve as many songs and tunes as possible for prosperity.”
Mr. Velivasakis explains the vital importance of this particular project: “We’re planning to come up with a volume of recordings of that genre, which is sung mostly in the mountain region. Next, we will apply to the UN for recognition of this project as a cultural heritage initiative, which should open the door for future funding.”
Cultural Crete also prepares and distributes free educational packets and publications to the Cretan community to help raise awareness and appreciation for our history and culture. For example, a collector’s art-package of Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), recently published by the National Gallery in Athens, complete with amazing lithographs for recipients to exhibit in their homes, was shared to commemorate the famous Cretan’s 400th Anniversary. Cultural Crete also supported creative recitations and enactments of Kazantzakis’ work at the Greek Cultural Center, with a much larger performance of the same in Rethimno, Crete, which drew over 2,000 attendees!
At present, the foundation continues to sponsor the preservation, production and distribution of multiple literary and musical performances both locally and globally. Cultural Crete has preserved a CD of the work of Professor Grigoris Maninakis (Engineering, SUNY Stony Brook), a world-renowned singer of 40 years who hosts a show on Cosmos FM on Monday nights. The foundation is also the partial sponsor of a multi-faceted musical project with the famous Xylouris family, which goes back 100 years to composer and musician Giorgos Xylouris.
Cultural Crete often pushes beyond the musical ties to investigate, document and share the signs of the times and the more intricate historical ties to Crete. “Another Hellen”, was written by an American, George Horton who served as Consul General in Constantinople in the 1900s and he documented the destruction of Smyrna. He spent some time in Crete in the 1860s and 1870s and documented the life of Cretans under the Ottoman occupation. Though the story itself is fiction it serves as a historical documentary of Crete and how people lived in that period. “Horton’s daughter, who lives in Athens, gave us the rights to publish the book,” he explains.
Towards the ongoing fulfillment of increasing awareness of historical as well as creative contributions, Mr. Velivasakis recently gave a special historical lecture on the heroes of Crete based on Cultural Crete’s DVD, 1866 Arkadi Monastery Holocaust, at the Minos Cretan House in Astoria New York.
Cultural Crete, along with the Department of Music at Columbia University, the Metropolitan Opera and the Council of the Arts, is sponsoring a musical symposium being in New York City on December 15th-17th.
These are a few of over 20 ongoing projects that are in the works at the foundation, which are being preserved as books and/or CD/DVD compilations and offered, for the most part, in both English and Greek. Mr. Velivasakis concludes the interview for NEO Magazine with a reverence to excerpts from a touching book review of The Voice of the People: Mantinades of Crete, written by Prof. Stylianos Spyridakis from the Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies at CUNY Queens College (Pella Publishing, NY, June 2012). The review begins: “The mantinades, sung at all social occasions, from weddings to funerals, are deeply embedded in the Cretan psyche and express the spirit, values, moral physiognomy and instinctual vitality of the people…. The book starts with a brief treatise on Cretan mantinades and continues with a quite large selection of them…. Prof. Spyridakis provides an absolutely wonderful English translation for each of the mantinades… in poetic rhymed verse… one of the few [that] truly expresses the spirit and poetic value of each of the original verses! Here are some representative examples for your enjoyment: ‘…Liberty was asked once what mother gave you birth; Its Cretan blood, responded she, that brought me to this earth!’”
For more information on current initiatives and how to get involved, their website is CulturalCrete-USA.org.