Bruce Lansdale Memorial Part 5





In re-making the American Farm School to fit the post-war era, Bruce Lansdale knew that he could not do it alone, especially in a world where the values on which the School was founded found little support from the general public. The success of the institution preparing students combining high ethical values who would also be competent conducting their business in today’s world could only be accomplished with a strong and supportive staff who were prepared to work for much less than they could earn in the outside world – men and women who placed service above money. One of those people was Theo Litsas.

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Chapter 10: My Earliest Mentor, Theo Litsas: 1950-1963

From the moment I laid eyes on Theo Litsas, doing jumping jacks on the runway at the Thessaloniki airport when I first arrived, I felt a strong bond with my first Macedonian Greek. Indeed, he became my most enduring friend and my number one mentor, “wise and trusted counselor” as he was to countless others. Theo taught me how to live with the Greeks, to absorb their unique effervescence, to laugh at their foibles, and to cry with them in their overwhelming sense of loss at death. It was impossible to be in his presence and not find oneself laughing, or at least smiling. He found life so amusing. The most mundane occurrences evoked his inimitable chuckle.

Bruce learned much from Theo too. He was beginning his job as Assistant Director of the Farm School, with very limited administrative experience: he was green around the gills. Whenever Theo saw the inexperienced young director about to take a wrong path, he would say, “Bruce, I would like to tell you a Hodja story, and Bruce understood he had a lesson coming.

On one occasion, before Bruce had a chance to fire a miscreant worker, Theo told him the story of Hodja who was trying to break into a store by filing away at the iron grillwork.

“What are you doing?” a passing policeman demanded.

“Oh, I’m playing my violin,” replied the quick-witted Hodja, using the file as a bow to sweep across an imaginary violin.

“But I don’t hear any music,” the befuddled policeman said.

“Ah, but you will tomorrow,” replied the Hodja.

Bruce laughed but quickly realized that there would be significant repercussions if the man were fired.

When I first met Theo, he was in his forties and prematurely gray, although he had the body and energy of a teenager. He was slender and wiry with a Chaplinesque demeanor, and moved effortlessly, gracefully, yet with a tensile internal strength. One thought of him as being tall, but he wasn’t. He had angular features, with a large Grecian nose under bushy eyebrows and angular ears sticking out the side of his head. “So I can hear you better,” he would laugh.

As Program Director, Theo was intimately involved in all the school’s activities, interacting with students, staff, graduates, parents, refugees and villagers. He loved to mix with the boys and play their games with them. A favorite game was a strenuous “Long Donkey.” A row of about seven or eight boys each bent over and tucked his head between the legs of the boy bent in front, making a long, strong back. Then the fastest one made a running leap to see if he could reach and land on the hump of the leader. Others followed until the line collapsed in a heap of roaring laughter. Litsas was usually at the bottom of the pile, laughing uproariously at the tumble.

But he was also a respected teacher for these young men. One day, as I was on my way to morning assembly, the game reached a crescendo of mirth just as the school bell rang. One tiny first class boy, Spyros Papalexiou, from the village of Kolindros in the foothills of Mount Olympus, took his place in chapel along with his classmates. He was still laughing at their antics. I noticed Mr. Litsas watching him, and with a nod of his head and roll of his eyes indicate to Spyros that he was to remain after chapel. Years later, Spryos became a successful businessman, amassed a fortune, and was elected a trustee of the School. He confided in me what had happened when he and Theo met after the assembly:

“‘My boy,’ Litsas said as I stood trembling. ‘Don’t you know that there is a time for everything? When we play, we play. When we pray, we pray. You’ll have to be punished for breaking the rules.’

“In those days the Greeks followed the English discipline of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Litsas picked up the teacher’s pointer and slapped it against the palm of my hand. Then he exclaimed, ‘But look at you. You’re nothing but skin and bones. Go to the dorm and put on the heaviest overcoat you can find and then I’ll beat you.” Spyros explained to us, “Mr. Litsas treated me as his son. I was wild and needed the discipline. I got the beating I deserved – through a heavy winter coat. It was a lesson for me that I never forgot. Tough discipline with loving compassion.”

Aletheia Pattison, daughter of a former governor of Ohio was visiting the School when war broke out, forcing her to leave her touring car behind. After the war, she returned to the School and inquired, “Where is my car, Theo?”

“Give me a day, Miss Pattison,” Theo replied, “and you shall have it.” It seems that Theo had dismantled the car when the Germans arrived, and pieces of it had found their way to various places about town. Miraculously, the very next day, its sundry parts were collected, and it was reassembled in the School’s machine shop and returned to the owner.

One afternoon, Bruce came home from a meeting, furious. “I’ll never understand that Litsas. The editor of the New Truth newspaper came to the School to ask us to collaborate with large corporations and institutions to build floats to celebrate the opening of the Thessaloniki Trade Fair. Theo and I knew he was coming and had agreed beforehand that we couldn’t possibly afford to get involved. But it was as if our conversation never happened. You should have heard him going on and on about what the School could do. He suggested that the School’s grand finale would be to release white doves over the officials. I couldn’t believe it.

“When the editor left, he could see me fuming. ‘No, Bruce,’ he said, ‘it is like Hodja who was sentenced to death, but he told the Sultan that if he commuted the sentence, then he, Hodja, would teach the Sultan’s camel to talk. The Sultan was amazed and agreed. They set off for a ten-day pilgrimage to Mecca. Every hour Hodja would stop the long caravan, get down and whisper in the ear of the Sultan’s camel. This happened so often that the Sultan became exasperated.’ “Tell me what you’re saying to the camel and I’ll spare your life.” “I’m telling him that either he will die before Mecca, or the Sultan will die, or I will die, so let’s just go along with it.” That, in a nutshell, was Theo’s philosophy. Within a week, he ran into our house waving the local newspaper. “Look, Bruce. The editor has just died! You see, aren’t you glad we didn’t let him die an unhappy man?”

Theo would often invite us to his Litsas farm in the nearby village of Sedes, now Thermi, where he had single-handedly created a green oasis of tall pines and fruit trees.

“It was a barren field when I married Chrysanthe,” he told us.” It was her dowry. I would walk to the University Farm, a demonstration farm run for the agricultural students. It is located about six miles from the Farm School, heading toward the airport. I would go every morning before work and carry saplings on my back. The local farmers who were sitting in the coffee house, would laugh at me and call out, ‘Hey, Litsas, are you planting a forest?’ But now they bring their children to play under the trees. In summer I turn it into an outdoor camp for orphans.”

The multifaceted venue of the Farm School offered Theo a perfect stage to connect rural boys with people from all walks of life. In June of 1928, the nine graduates were preparing for their overnight excursion to Mount Olympus when Dorathea Hughes, an American Quaker, begged to go along. Following an arduous eight-hour climb, they sat around a small bonfire. Gently, Dorathea’s voice touched their reveries. “Tell me what is your biggest dream for your future?”

“I wish I could have a tractor. What a difference it would make on my farm.” “I wish I could have a farm.” The dreams continued around the circle as the boys poured out their innermost desires: continuing their education, going to America, building a house.

Back at the School a few days later, Dorathea invited the class, along with Ann and Charlie House and Theo Litsas, to her small room for tea. Quietly, she smiled at each one.

“You will be happy to know that an anonymous benefactor has granted all your wishes.” This simple lady turned out to be a person of vast wealth. The boys could only blink in astonishment.

When Theo finished narrating the story, he concluded, “It was one of the typical miracles that continually happens at the School.” I looked wide-eyed at Bruce. Theo was one of the first people at the School to teach me about miracles, extraordinary events that surpassed all expectations.

The summer of 1932 was a time of financial crisis for the School following the Depression in the US, and there was talk of closing the American Farm School. Theo’s counter-initiative not only sent a message to the Board, but also set a pattern among the staff. He wrote:

June 2, 1932

Dear Mr. House,

Taking into consideration the heavy financial problems which the School is facing these most difficult times by the depreciation of income to the School, due to the crisis, I ask you respectfully, to accept another reduction of 10% on my salary, beginning this month and up to the time you think it helpful.

Respectfully yours,

Theo Litsas

When Germany declared war on the US, the Houses were arrested, taken to Dulag 183, a military prison in Thessaloniki, and later sent to internment camps in Germany and repatriated to the US in March 1944. On September 22, 1945, they returned from their war years away from the School, and picked up the reigns of leadership with scarcely a missed beat, thanks to the diligence and resourcefulness of Theo.

Theo was a study of perpetual motion, a modern day saint who put the needs of others first, and never stopped to eat or sleep, or so it seemed. As a refugee from Smyrna on the Turkish coast, he was steeped in grass-roots wisdom. Their general level of culture and material prosperity under Turkish rule had been distinctly higher than that of mainland Greece. They brought with them agricultural and industrial skills which were of great value to their compatriots, particularly in developing the production of tobacco.

“I arrived in Athens, but then left for Thessaloniki, where I hoped I would find my family. I took to the road to walk the 500 miles to the north. I scavenged for food, sometimes stopping at overcrowded refuges camps, always asking for my family. When I finally reached Thessaloniki, I sought out the cotton merchants, but no one had seen my family. I guess that was the lowest point in my life. I had never been so tired, so hungry, so discouraged. I went to the largest cotton merchant and said, ‘If you will give me some shirts and underwear, I will sell them on the street and bring you the money each night. In that way I might find out something about my family.’ I was in the pit of despair when an American teacher from my international high school in Turkey came walking down Venizelous Street. ‘You’re just the one I’m looking for. Look, the Red Cross is setting up another camp for refugees down past the harbor. We just can’t keep up with demand. We need a Program Director who can speak Greek, English and Turkish, and put a little spirit into the place. I remember all the plays and programs you put on in Smyrna for the school and for the community. It’s just what we need. Will you do it?”

Under his leadership, “Theo’s Camp” soon became a prototype of organization, skills, activities and optimism for the thousands of camps set up around the country. Greece was reeling from having to cope with a 25% increase in population. There was no infrastructure, no roads, no telephones, no communication system to deal with this swell of humanity.

Five years after the population exchange, the refugee camps were turned into orphanages and trade schools, gaining a reputation for producing hard-working men and women who were progressive in their outlook.

Theo often went out into the fifty outlying villages to work on community development projects, one of which was to help control malaria, which was widespread. This effort was Theo’s first contact with students from the Farm School. Theo was impressed that these young men organized clubs that went out to treat mosquito swamps and brought quinine to the afflicted. It was the earliest student outreach Extension Program with the ministry of agriculture and still later, a Community Development Program.

Theo also worked closely with representatives of the British Society of Friends, commonly referred to as Quakers, a dedicated group of foreigners who arrived after the Population Exchange to do relief work. Their headquarters, as it happened, was at the American Farm School. They used the School as a distribution center for food, and his close connection with the Quakers allowed him to become increasingly familiar with the School.

Theo continued to be amazed with the work ethic of the students, based on Father House’s belief in the “dignity of manual labor,” and was impressed that staff and students would undertake any kind of project deemed necessary for the well-being of others. He too, was jack-of-all-trades at the Farm School where he began as a worker, while soon his leadership abilities propelled him to the position of Assistant Director. There was a spirit of faith and service at the School with which he identified. He was committed to sharing the School’s mission and worked tirelessly to instill high values in students over the years.

Theo was killed in a tragic automobile accident in 1963. Bruce was immediately called to the scene by the president of the village of Vassilika, fifteen kilometres away. He called me from the village, and in his straight-forward way, said, “Theo has been killed. Please go over and tell Chrysanthe.”

Bruce came home ashen, and tears began to well in his eyes as he told me what had happened. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry.

Over 2,000 people came to Theo’s funeral. Most of them were crying as if they had lost their best friend. I knew I had. I remembered my lowest points in adjusting to the challenges of the school. How often I had been discouraged and downcast. I realized that just as Ann House’s life was turned around by her friend on the train, so mine was turned around by Theo. And I knew that I was not alone in my gratitude. He had done this for everybody, from homesick students to alienated staff.

A twenty-five ton rock was hauled down from the nearby town of Panorama to grace the entrance of the newly laid out Litsas Playing Field. A friend wrote a districh, “Rocklike thy faith, and like it, unbudgeable thy works, Theodore Litsas.”

Four students were asked to speak about what Theo had meant to them. Two were class devils, and I had mixed feelings about the choice. I shouldn’t have. Each spoke from his heart and with a natural eloquence and sincerity. More tears were shed.

The first student stood up in front of the gathering, his back straight, his eyes looking above our heads: “There could be no one who knew Theo Litsas who didn’t love him. Even if only meeting him for a few minutes, one felt one had made a real friend. No matter how rich one is, or whether he is a diplomat or a king, for me he is unlucky if he never had the chance to meet Mr. Litsas.”

The second boy spoke in a quiet, yet forceful way: “Who of us can’t remember coming to the School, lost and lonely, and seeing Mr. Litsas with his special smile and a few words of welcome that made us feel we’d found a friend.”

These were the two rascals I had worried about. Theo would have scolded me.

The third boy was the class president, and had worked closely with Theo: “Although he was the Associate Director, no job was too menial for him. He was with us in everything we did, as he was with everyone. He was truly an “Hyperanthropos,” a Superman. He was up before us in the morning, and he was the last to go to bed. He never thought of himself, only what he could do for others.”

The last boy to speak said: “He was a worker of God. A true saint who lived a life of love and kindness. Even when he punished us, we knew it was for our good. What he meant to us we shall remember all our lives.”

It was Theo who had taught me to cry with the Greeks, sharing their loss. Never did I dream how deep his loss would be to me. The Greeks say it so well, “Eons to his memory.”

On his grave in the school cemetery is an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:8 which he kept on his desk:

“Finally, brethren, whatever is TRUE,

whatever is HONORABLE,

whatever is RIGHT,

whatever is PURE,

whatever is LOVELY,

whatever is of GOOD REPUTE,

if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise,

let your mind dwell on these things.”

And so he did. Thank you, Theo for being the unique golden thread shining through my Farm School memories.

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