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Time flew by for beloved priest at Greek Orthodox church

An array of boxes, papers and photographs were scattered around Father Demetri Kangelaris’ office the other day. “Forgive the mess,” he said. “Thirty years is a long time.”

Indeed it is. Kangelaris has served since 1990 as pastor at — if you’re neither Greek nor Orthodox, odds are you know something of the parish through its annual three-day festival — and is stepping down at month’s end.

Thirty years is a long time.

It’s roughly three times longer than Kangelaris expected to be in Winston-Salem. Every photo and scrap of paper on his desk represents a memory; it’s a lot to pack in just a few short days.

Naturally some are more fun than others. Mementoes and keepsakes from such happy occasions as marriages and baptisms — he baptized actor Telly Savalas’ grandkids and officiated at the wedding of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson — are in his office.

So, too, are memories about the tougher occasions, illness and loss, that makes the priesthood so challenging.

Thirty years gone. Where did the time go?

“It was in Winston-Salem that we fell in love,” Kangelaris said. “The people. The parish. The city. Our children grew up here. It’s a lot to digest.”

Starry congregation

It only takes minutes before guests can see why the folks at the Greek Orthodox Church are so attached to Kangelaris.

Father Demetri to generations, the 64-year-old native of Israel wears an easy smile and laughs generously. He’s self-deprecating with his humor. He pulls out the official invitation to his retirement luncheon and points to the oil painting of himself that’s on the front.

“The artist gave me more hair than I have! If I would have known that, I would have asked for more!”

Father Demetri is comfortable talking about his lifetime in the priesthood, his time in Winston and his plans for the future — the reason for the visit — but it’s obvious that he would just as soon hear about his guest. A kind heart and well-honed, well-used listening skills come naturally to him.

“He is a great leader, and he’s presided over a long period of peaceful growth,” said Father Costa Shepherd, the parish’s assistant priest. “Those are important things. But at the heart of it, he has been a good shepherd for the community.”

Kangelaris was born in Jerusalem, and immigrated to Maine, of all places, in 1973. The United States, he said in a 1990 interview, afforded great religious freedom and economic opportunity. He studied at the University of Southern Maine and received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in education.

“That’s why I have an affinity for the New England teams,” he said, reeling off the recent successes of the NFL’s Patriots, hockey’s Boston Bruins and of course, the Red Sox.

He married his wife Olga in 1977, the same year he entered seminary. His first assignment after ordination was a doozy — St. Sophia Cathedral in central Los Angeles — and the source of some very interesting factoids.

Namely, the April 1988 wedding of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who worked with young adults in the church through Kangelaris’ time there. Hanks hit it big with the movie “Splash” in 1984 and his second blockbuster “Big” was set to debut when Wilson reached out to ask Father Demetri a big favor.

Kangelaris had moved in 1986 to Oklahoma City, and he was hesitant. “Once you leave a parish, you leave it,” he said. “You can’t go back and forth.”

But Wilson insisted. She knew Father Demetri and she didn’t know the new priest as well. Kangelaris relented, and asked who Wilson was marrying.

“I did not know who he was, I’m embarrassed to say,” he said. “When I told my secretary she about fell over. It was a neat experience.”

The church in Los Angeles, he said, lent itself to that sort of thing. A snapshot with actor Telly Savalas — Kojak! — that he pulled from a shelf offers further proof.

“The church attracted a congregation that lent itself to those things,” he said with a shrug.

Growing a community

The life of a clergyman can be itinerant. Assignments, particularly for a young priest, can be short.

Life in Los Angeles, Kangelaris said, was good. But it was also expensive for a young man with a young family. So when he saw the chance to build a church, he took it. “A career bucket list thing,” he explained.

Kangelaris grew St. George Greek Orthodox Church and stayed through 1990, when he moved to Winston-Salem. Here, he found a bustling church bursting at the seams.

He had an opportunity to manage the growth and further nurture the natural sense of community that exists in the Greek church. Children learn Greek and embrace their ethnicity.

“For orthodox people, the church becomes the center of their life for many reasons,” he said in 1990. “It’s a place where you can find jobs, establish contacts.”

The heart of that to outsiders and neighbors is the church’s annual festival. It attracts thousands of the hungry and the curious. The festival is a major fundraiser for the parish helping to support its operations and such worthy causes as the Brenner Children’s Hospital.

He won’t say so himself — “Every Greek church has a festival” — but Father Demetri recognized it as an opportunity to educate and to build community. He helped scale it to size and sharpen its focus.

“You have to be careful of overreach and be mindful of the cost,” he said. “It’s a three-day festival. You spend the first day and a half making costs back. The ladies bake twice a week for six months. It’s a lot of work.”

Ultimately, though, it succeeds and supports the church in its larger mission — tending to the parishioners.

“Father Demetri has been instrumental in change for people at a personal level,” Shepherd said. “For me personally, he’s been a huge mentor. He has affected me in my life more than any other man outside my father.”

At his recent retirement luncheon, Father Demetri was able to hear that and other such heartfelt tributes freely given by those he’s cared for these 30 years.

“My brother was here for that and he made sure to point out that they said all the nice things you hear at a funeral,” Kangelaris said. “Only you got the blessing of hearing them.”

Once he finishes the immediate task for packing away his memories, Father Demetri will move on just as he has twice before. He said he’ll split his time between his home in Winston-Salem, his daughter’s house in Richmond and at North Myrtle Beach.

It will be a well-earned retirement.

“God will show the way,” he said. “I’m really not worried. You can only plan so much.”

Nearly 4,000 graduate from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools amid rain

At each of this weekend’s 13 local graduations, family members beamed with pride, the graduation march played without fail, the graduation programs doubled as fans to counteract the heat and the words “We did it” echoed at each ceremony.

But the 3,920 students who graduated from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) system this year each had an individual story and set of challenges that got them to the much-awaited graduation day.

“We have a very, very diverse group of students here… We have some who worked through sickness to be here today, some who have even been homeless and lived in a car, we have many who have worked part-time jobs…” Lida Calvert Hayes, a member of the WSFCS school board, told West Forsyth graduates at their afternoon graduation, applauding their accomplishments. “You may live to be 100 years old, but you’re not going to forget today.”

On their four-year journeys to graduation, students overcame personal loss, battled health issues, juggled school work with athletics or found their way after soul-searching journeys.

Friday and Saturday’s stormy graduation days were a chance to celebrate all they had conquered.

“Just to make it to graduation is incredible after four years of hard work,” said Carver graduate Kaleb Childress, who wore a sling to graduation after hydroplaning and getting in a car wreck two weeks ago. “I was determined to come to graduation, no stopping me, because this is a big accomplishment.”

Resilience and determination shone through in the many student speeches at Saturday’s eight commencement ceremonies, which also included Glenn, Reynolds and North Forsyth high schools.

The student speakers took different approaches in their speeches, some quoting former presidents, the Bible and even N’Sync lyrics at the Mount Tabor graduation.

“We are a family at Mount Tabor and we have a lot to be thankful for. Just think of all we can do as we move forward…” said student council president David Craver, who sang a few lines of NSYNC hit “Bye, bye, bye.” “We all have special gifts. We all matter.”

Mount Tabor valedictorian Max Thomas told his classmates, all of whom donned navy robes, to remember that high school is just a springboard for their future and told them to chase their dreams.

“While our stories have been drastically different up to this point, in the here and in the now, it doesn’t matter. We’re sitting in the same room all as one…” said Thomas, who will attend Washington and Lee to study political science and environmental science. “Go out and attack the world with a sense of unbridled ambition. You never know what you’ll accomplish.”

‘A day of celebration’

Among the many accomplishments to celebrate is the whopping nearly $112 million the district’s students were awarded in scholarships.

Of the ranks of students were two Morehead-Cain Scholarship winners, two National Merit Scholarship recipients and five National Merit finalists.

The students will attend more than 115 different colleges and universities across the country, according to WSFCS spokesman Brent Campbell.

Each will pursue their own set of dreams from accepting Naval and Coast Guard appointments to chasing careers as astronauts, politicians, teachers and engineers.

Carver graduate Alyssa Hendrix, 18, said she would like to become a businesswoman and the next Kylie Jenner while following her passion for make-up.

“I didn’t always like high school, the gossip, the drama. Tenth-grade was really hard for me,” said Hendrix, who is planning to attend the Makeup Institute in Greensboro. “Today means the world to me.”

For Mount Tabor Principal Ed Weiss, the day was a chance to not only celebrate the hard work of his 373 graduating seniors but also to hand a diploma to his daughter, Emily Weiss, just as he has done with his two other children in previous years.

He urged the graduates — some of whom have enlisted, others pursuing college or other ventures — to take on the world without fear.

“Since you were little itty-bitty kindergartners to 12th-grade sitting here today… you have been filled with anticipation and maybe a little bit of uncertainty to what this day and milestone means in your life,” Weiss said. “Today is the end of one world and the beginning of another. Today above all is a day of celebration.”

Behind the scenes

Between Friday and Saturday night, tens of thousands of friends and family members braved the traffic to attend one of the 13 graduation ceremonies held at Joel Coliseum and the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex.

The behind-the-scenes logistics can be dizzying to manage and contracts with the venues are settled years ahead of time, said Jonathan Wilson, who coordinates between the graduation venues, the school system and law enforcement to make the impossible possible.

“Planning for graduation starts the day after last year’s graduation,” said Wilson, the security director for WSFCS.“Saturday is a 15-hour day start to finish, so it all has to go off without a hitch.”

With so many moving pieces, the graduations have to adhere to a strict schedule and each school is allotted two hours to complete their ceremony.

The staggered graduations started at 8 a.m. Saturday with East Forsyth and any time delays could disrupt the upcoming ceremonies in a domino-like fashion, Wilson said.

As graduation for one school ends, graduates from the next school begin showing up an hour early to get ready.

“Traffic is a humongous piece to the puzzle. It’s a fine dance of a lot of people coming in and out in a small amount of time,” Wilson said.

“We have a rotating schedule of schools, a large school followed by a smaller school, followed by a large school. That way the traffic in and out is not so overwhelming.”

On the graduation days, every parking spot around the two venues and the Wake Forest football stadium across the street is utilized, he said.

The venues hire their own security companies to ensure the safety of all in attendance, he said.

“If it weren’t for law enforcement directing traffic and DOT (Department of Transportation) setting up cones, it would be unmanageable,” he said.

Busy days

Even with all the streamlining and safety precautions in place, graduation day can still be hectic, especially when it comes to finding parking in the middle of a thunderstorm as many West Forsyth parents had to do.

But despite the chaos, Carol Robinson said it was worth it to see her grand-niece graduate.

Robinson was one of about 100 family and friends who flew in from New York and New Jersey to watch West Forsyth senior Trinity Washington graduate, she said.

“We got soaked, but we’re very happy to be here,” Robinson said. “I remember when she was 9 days old, never mind 19 years old. I’m so proud of her.”

West Forsyth graduate Pedro Villasmil told his peers to thank the family members who have loved them unconditionally, the coaches who pushed them and the teachers who taught them.

The encouragement helped get them all through the 785 school days between freshman orientation and graduation, which as promised went by quickly, Villasmil said.

“As awkward freshman, we were anxious about fitting in and finding our way. We’ve all had our unique struggles over our past four years,” said Villasmil, Student Government Association president. “As I look out into this beautiful sea of green and gold, I see the greatest our generation has to offer. It’s awe-inspiring.”

Forsyth Middle College and Early College held their ceremonies in May, kicking off the graduation season.

Five schools — Reagan, Parkland, Atkins, Kennedy and Carter high schools — held their graduations Friday night.

Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy will be the final Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school to graduate on Sunday.

Walkertown High School graduate Tiffany Tzintzun said she is proud of all she and her fellow classmates have accomplished and looks forward to seeing what they do in the future.

“Part of me is sad, saying goodbye to the people I’ve known since kindergarten,” Tzintzun, 17, said. “But at the same time, it brings me happiness to know we’ve all grown into this stage of our lives where we get to decide what comes next.”

Court papers: Training document designed to exclude black jurors in murder case

Two national experts allege in court papers that Forsyth County prosecutors used a training document in a murder case more than 20 years ago that is steeped in racist stereotypes and is specifically designed to exclude black people from juries.

Russell William Tucker, 52, is currently serving time on death row after a jury convicted him in February 1996 of first-degree murder in the death of Maurice Travone Williams.

Williams was a security guard at a Kmart store. Tucker is accused of shooting Williams in the chest on Dec. 8, 1994, after Tucker walked out of the Kmart store in clothing Williams believed Tucker had stolen.

According to testimony, Tucker also fired at another security guard and missed and fired five times into a police car as he ran away. One officer was wounded.

His attorneys filed an amended motion for appropriate relief Tuesday in Forsyth Superior Court that includes affidavits from two experts to bolster Tucker’s claims that prosecutors used the training document to keep black people off the jury for his murder trial.

Attorneys for the N.C. Attorney General’s Office have denied those allegations in court papers. They say that the trial record clearly shows that race was not a factor in jury selection and the training document was simply used to remind prosecutors across the state that they cannot use race.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill has previously declined to comment because the case is pending.

The two prosecutors who tried the case — David Spence and Robert Lang — have also declined to comment. Lang is now an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Spence is a prosecutor in Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties.

One of the experts is Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at New York University School of Law. He also worked to create the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

The other expert is Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which has won numerous awards.

The document in question is entitled, “Batson Justifications: Articulating Juror Negatives.” “Batson” refers to a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said prosecutors can’t get rid of potential jurors solely because of race.

The ruling involved the use of what are known as peremptory challenges, where prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys can remove potential jurors without giving a reason, but criminal defense attorneys can object if they believe prosecutors are using race in removing jurors.

If a judge asks, prosecutors can give a non-racial reason for removing the juror.

Tucker’s attorneys, Elizabeth Hambourger and Mark Pickett, argue Forsyth County prosecutors David Spence and Robert Lang pulled language from the document when they gave reasons in court for why they removed five potential black jurors.

Words and phrases such as “inappropriate,” “monosyllabic,” “body language,” or a juror having “no stake in the community” came directly from the “Batson” doument and were used as justifications for getting rid of black jurors, they have argued.

Hambourger and Pickett found the document due to litigation surrounding the now-repealed Racial Justice Act that allowed death-row inmates to challenge their death sentences if they believed racial bias played a role in their case.

In their affidavits, Stevenson and Kendi argue that the document clearly shows prosecutors used it to hide racial bias, not avoid it.

Stevenson said the document was created out of a 1995 training session for North Carolina prosecutors called Top Gun II and he first reviewed the document in 2011 to prepare for his testimony in a hearing involving another death-row inmate. Lang attended that training session, according to court papers.

The document, Stevenson said, has to be understood as part of a long history of excluding black Americans from jury service.

And even after the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision, prosecutors nationally continued to use peremptory strikes to keep black people off juries and simply gave non-racial reasons when challenged on it, he argued.

“The North Carolina Batson Justifications handout is another example of the common prosecutorial response to Batson: prosecutors came up with ways to conceal racial bias, and avoid findings of Batson violations, by developing ‘reasons’ that would likely be deemed race-neutral, and therefore, acceptable to reviewing courts,” Stevenson said in court papers.

Kendi said in his affidavit that the language in the training document is steeped in racist stereotypes about black people.

Even though the reasons are presented as race-neutral, “many of the listed reasons are based on longstanding racist stereotypes that have been used to deny rights to Blacks for centuries.”

Throughout American history, “race-neutral” language has been used to circumvent the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, Kendi said.

For example, literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses never mentioned race but “were clearly designed with discriminatory intent in mind,” he said.

Kendi argued that a number of phrases, such as “confused,” “rebellious,” “lack of eye contact with prosecutor,” and others in the training document can be traced to a history of racist stereotypes white people had about black people.

An example is eye contact, he said.

“Under slavery and Jim Crow, Black people were constrained not only by laws but also by a social code,” he writes. “

African Americans were supposed to bow their heads and lower their eyes, and not make eye contact with Whites, especially Whites they did not know and White authority figures.”

Kendi said the document shows how that social code can be used against potential black jurors.

If they make eye contact, black people are considered aggressive or “insufficiently deferential,” Kendi argues.

And if they don’t make eye contact, prosecutors may conclude that potential black jurors are “dishonest, evasive or unfriendly,” according to Kendi’s affidavit.

In an earlier filing, Danielle Marquis Elder, a senior state prosecutor with the N.C. Attorney’s Office, has argued that Lang provided reasons not in the document for why he removed certain black jurors, including that one juror had fallen asleep.

Another black juror gave consistently vague answers on whether he supported the death penalty, she argued.

No hearing has been set for the case.