Ph.D. ‘79

My wife and I arrived in Chapel Hill one evening in the Fall of 1970 and driven through Franklin street, by my friend Al Jacobson, we were amazed by the claim of Hector’s sign “Famous since 1969”!!

I had studied Economics at the Economic University of Athens and after completing my two year military service, I worked for two years at the Social Sciences Center of Athens, as a research assistant. It was the first time that I worked with people who had recently finished their studies abroad and were collaborating under the direction of Professor John Peristiany, a social anthropologist, who had done research in Africa and taught at the University of Chicago, among other places. This was an academic environment totally different from a Greek University’s strict regime, where contact with the faculty was almost forbidden. I was fortunate to receive field research training and take part in several research projects, including field research in an Athens’ neighborhood and a small Greek rural town. During my second year at the Center, I was awarded a two year UNESCO fellowship for graduate studies abroad and I was accepted in the M.A. program of the Sociology department at Cornell.

Al and I became friends at Cornell, while studying for our M.A’s. We kept in touch after I returned to Greece, where I continued working at the Social Sciences Center of Athens, as a research associate, without, however, giving up the idea of returning to the US for my doctoral degree. I worked on several projects on immigration and urbanization and I undertook a UNESCO funded project on the socioeconomic consequences of seismic zoning in Greece, focusing on the problems of relocating whole communities to distant, but safer locations.

Alas, the spring of 1967 arrived with the colonels’ coup and the Center was closed, with the personnel being forced to leave. It was reopened later, as the National Center of Social Sciences.

After a year of job hunting, I was hired by the American Express Bank in Athens, where I worked for two years. This experience later proved very useful and also decisive, for my future life. All this time I was submitting applications to various U.S. universities, asking also for financial support.

In the meantime, Al had joined the Sociology Department at UNC, Chapel Hill, and suggested that I could include Chapel Hill in my applications’ roster, which I did. I was fortunately accepted in the Ph.D. program of the Department, with full financial support, through teaching and research assistantships, starting in the fall of 1970.

Before departing from Athens, I married my amazing wife Elizabeth and we both flew to Chapel Hill, instead of to our honeymoon. It was much better. It didn’t take long to realize, that we had arrived in the Southern Part of Heaven. The Jacobsons were waiting for us at the airport and took us to their home, where we enjoyed their hospitality, until we settled down in the one-room efficiency apartment they had secured for us in Jackson Circle. The next day Elizabeth had the shock of her life entering the ground floor apartment in Jackson Circle, a far cry from the “America” she had in mind. Then and there we met Dick Cramer, the second person and immediate friend we met from the Department.

We settled down and gradually found our way around, first on foot or by bicycle and then by car, a beautiful 1965 Ford Mustang that immensely improved Elizabeth’s tarnished picture of “America”. After a few months, we moved upscale to a plywood-built one-bedroom little house in Victory Village. Elizabeth found a job at the University’s Utilities Department, where she had the opportunity to meet and become friends with local people, enjoying coffee and lunch breaks. She also took some evening courses. We had completely adjusted to an American university town everyday life. We were happy.

On my part, I was very happy to join the Department, meet with its people and its high caliber teaching staff, who right from the start embraced us. I was glad to meet Prof. Blalock and take his courses, because his first book on Causal Models had given me the central idea of my MA thesis topic. First in the Alumni building and then in Hamilton Hall, I was happy to immerse myself into the warm, friendly academic atmosphere of the Department. My two years at Cornell had helped acquaint myself with US university life, but here in the Department, after a short period of coming to know all the people, I felt at home.

I was impressed not only by the academic standards, but also by the high degree of collaboration within the Department, that created a stimulating and supportive learning environment, where one could easily talk to other students and faculty. I remember the course on social theory, offered jointly by Simpson, Lenski and Hawley and enjoyed Ev. Wilson’s theory classes, as well as his pioneering work on teaching sociology during my assistantships with him. Though a great deal of my time was devoted to methods and data analysis, the daily life in the department gave me a lot of opportunities to learn from many others, students and faculty.

After Blalock’s departure, I enrolled in some of Prof. Namboodiri’s courses. These courses, together with my statistics background and my positivistic inclinations, as well as the good rapport that developed between him and myself, led me to take up a topic on categorical data analysis for my dissertation, with him as my advisor. Namboodiri provided a lot of assistance in all the final stages of completing my degree requirements. My close relationship with him started after getting, first, an Incomplete, but then an A+, in his experimental design course. He was a man of high work ethic and discipline and I enjoyed working with him, save for his setting appointments at 7.00 a.m.

I have to mention Babe Andrew, the administrative heart of the Department, friend and provider of extra computer time, much needed for running my simulations, late at night, at the IRSS computer terminal.

Elizabeth and I enjoyed the Department’s social events, meetings and dinners at the Wilsons and the Cottrells, not to mention our more frequent visits with the Jacobsons and the Cramers. We were happy to meet and become close friends with Prof. Cambanis at the Statistics Department, and Bill Skoutakis, a graduate student at the Pharmacology Department, who contributed to keeping our Greek-American balance, celebrating Greek Easter together.

We stayed in Chapel Hill for five wonderful years, until the summer of 1975. I had passed all my degree requirements, but the completion of my dissertation. We wanted to go back to Greece, liberated one year ago from the colonels’ dictatorship, full of expectations for the rebirth of democracy, the country as a whole and, well, Sociology.

Until then, and for several years to come, there was no Sociology Department anywhere in Greece and Sociology was taught only as a course in some university departments. Two years’ (1968-70) banking experience with American Express, proved valuable in securing a well-paying position and advance prospects in the newly founded Ergobank, where I worked until 1999, reaching the General Manager position, as well as, becoming one of its board members. I also managed The Greek Progress Fund, a big closed-end fund, formed jointly with the, now extinct, Barings Bank of London.

Thanks to Prof. Namboodiri, funding was secured for one year as an IRSS Research Associate that made possible my return to the Department in 1977, to finish up my dissertation. Elizabeth and I were very happy to return to Chapel Hill together with our Tar-Heel daughter, Iliana, born in 1974 in Duke Hospital, and our newborn second daughter, Alexandra, baptized later that year in the Triangle area’s Greek Orthodox Church. By the way, our third daughter, Ioanna, was conceived during our stay that same year, so all our children are in some way connected to Chapel Hill. This time we moved upwards, residentially, being given a two bedroom apartment in the Victory Village brick student housing. We were happy to meet our friends, in and outside the Department, and I was more than happy to return to the Department and academic life, taking a leave of absence from banking. Al had left, but Dick was still there for help and company. We had a wonderful time. Elizabeth left in August and I returned to Athens and banking in December.

For a third time, Elizabeth and I came to UNC for a month in 1984, where I did some library research on Methods and Economic Sociology, having been allotted an office in Hamilton Hall. The Department again showed great generosity towards me, giving me, once again, the opportunity to relive one month’s good academic life. Having left our children back in Athens, we were free to meet our friends and enjoy their company.

I came to Chapel Hill for a fourth time, this time alone, for two days, just in time to see and say goodbye to my close friend Prof. Cambanis, who was at the final stages of a rare case of cancer. This time, I only passed through the corridors of Hamilton Hall, realizing the changes on the faculty’s door signs and managing to surprise Dick, who was still there.

In 1996, Iliana spent a summer in Chapel Hill, where she attended a summer session at the Business School, with Kasarda being Chairman during that time. She met the Cramers, the Cambanis and other friends and enjoyed her stay in the area. A second generation connection with Chapel Hill and UNC; we shall see what the third will do!

Back in Greece we were visited by the Jacobsons and the Cramers. We saw Kasarda for dinner and Ginny Hiday with her husband for a night out. While still in Chapel Hill, John Reed, visiting Crete with his family, spent a week or so, on my invitation, in a little house of mine on the hills, overlooking the Cretan sea and my hometown, Rethymnon.

In 1999, after Ergobank was taken over by another bank, a group of Ergobank colleagues and I resigned, raised 27 billion drachmas ($100 million) and in 2001 we founded a new commercial bank, Probank, with me as founder, chairman of the board and managing director. Probank proved a success, until the Greek economic crisis hit the capital base of the whole banking system, reducing it to almost zero. The crisis led to the imposition of a severe adjustment program, by EU and IMF, including a strict restructuring plan for the recapitalization and the integration of the banking system, resulting, in 2013, in only four large banks, through the absorption of all other banks, Probank included. A lot of people lost their jobs and share values were reduced to zero.

What happened to my Sociology?

For three academic years (1983-86), I taught, as a part-time instructor, several introductory sociology courses, at the newly founded University of Crete, without managing to make a career out of it. I stuck to banking instead, securing a respectable income for my five-member family.

Outside the academia, in banking, methodology and quantitative analysis were used extensively in constructing and validating credit scales, building client evaluation models using empirical data and especially, in risk management.

Organizational theory proved very useful too, in designing the structure of banks and the relationships among employees-shareholders-clients and the bank. At Probank we established a three-level only, flat hierarchical structure, a no budget philosophy and the employee-owner model, with all Probank people becoming shareholders, owning approximately 12% of the Bank, with no single shareholder allowed to have more than 5% of its share capital. There was no “selling of products”, but instead, there was “offering of services” to the client, with no individual material motivational schemes and an inverted hierarchical pyramid, where the management’s main role was to serve and support the client and income-producing branch network, with the whole system establishing a culture of hard work, commitment and high ethical standards. It worked beautifully, making Probank one of the most operationally, efficient bank in Greece.

Before closing, I want to repeat how much I owe to the Department, not only for making my studies in the U.S possible, by providing me with full financial support, but also for giving me the opportunity to pursue my academic interests in a high standards environment, coupled with an ideal atmosphere of friendly collaboration and advice. I will not forget Dr. Lenski’s expressed idea, that, after finishing my degree requirements, I could stay in the Department, for one to two years, contrary to the Department’s hiring policy, in order to enrich my CV, in case I wanted to pursue a university career back in Greece. For the same reason, Prof. Namboodiri pressured me to stay longer and publish two or three papers, drawn from my dissertation, but as I have already mentioned, Elizabeth and I wanted to return to Greece. There are no regrets. I enjoyed very much the years I spent in the Department and I always remember with fondness all the people that helped me. My friend, Al Jacobson, deserves special mention for his invaluable contribution to my academic and our social life. Taking under consideration that this life in the Department took place in the beautiful town of Chapel Hill, justifies my saying, that Chapel Hill is my favorite place, second only to Crete.

Since 2013, I am a “not retired” pensioner, ready to found a new bank, as soon as political and economic conditions improve. Otherwise, I plan to work on a long conceived and partly pursued theme of macro-economic sociology. In the meantime, I am tending my olive trees in Crete and wishing for a trip to Chapel Hill, see the Cramers and spend a night at the Carolina Inn.

milt.dam@gmail.com
Submitted January 2017