The concept of the American dream was popularized by historian James Tuslow Adams, who described it as the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.
That’s a fine definition of a well-used—perhaps overused—catchphrase. But to truly appreciate what the American dream is all about, you simply need to meet its flesh-and-blood embodiment: 87-year-old Nicholas Karakas.
Karakas, a respected local businessman and philanthropist, was born to Greek émigrés who joined relatives in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century. His father, who instilled in his sons a fierce and enduring work ethic, eventually left the family candy kitchen to sell candy and cigarettes wholesale.
Today, that fledgling business has evolved into Discount Smoke Shops, a chain of more than 40 stores across the Midwest that keeps Karakas working 10-hour days. But it also has allowed him to honor his heritage and to help educate young people about Greek history and culture.
Karakas fondly recalls the “intimacy and comradeship” of the Greek neighborhood where he grew up—one of the many ethnic enclaves that made up South St. Louis at the time. That area has once again become a haven for immigrants, but now most come from countries such as Bosnia, Mexico and Somalia.
And that’s good news to Karakas, who recognizes in those groups the same optimism and ambition that his parents and others brought with them to America in generations past. “Immigrants work harder, they study harder,” he insists. “They deserve an opportunity to prove themselves.”
Karakas knows a thing or two about proving himself. After serving in the Marine Corps, he enrolled at Saint Louis University—a beneficiary, he notes proudly, of the G.I. Bill—and went to work with his father and brother. The business prospered, but Karakas didn’t wait to become a wealthy man to begin his philanthropic activities.
“I felt that we had been favored,” he explains. “My parents had the fortitude and bravery to come to a strange nation, and it was good to us. So I tried to do some good, too.”
Karakas began awarding college scholarships in 1955—only a few years after his own graduation. Those early awards may not have been large, but their impact was lasting. Decades after the fact, recipients have approached him to thank him for his life-changing gifts.
His generosity, along with his passion for promoting all things Greek, increased in the coming years. “Of course, everyone is proud of their heritage,” Karakas says. “But Greece has played such an intrinsic role in the world’s civilization. And beyond antiquity, more than a third of the words in the English language today are of Greek derivation.”
In the 1980s, he established the Karakas Family Foundation Scholarship and donated $550,000 to found a Greek studies program at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He later played an integral role in raising funds for the campus’ Hellenic Culture Center.
“It has been such a pleasure to work with the university in maintaining the Greek ethos and its importance to the world,” says Karakas, adding that his goal is for UMSL to become the country’s pre-eminent institution for the study of Greek and Hellenic culture. That goal is even closer to being realized with his recent donation of $1.5 million to endow a chair in Byzantine and Orthodox studies.
In a lifetime packed with achievement, a highlight for Karakas was attending the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens. Of course, the trip wasn’t purely a vacation; he had led an effort by the Hellenic Cultural Foundation to raise $1 million for the commission of a mural by St. Louis-based artist Euripides Kastaris. The work was installed in the stadium’s VIP area.
Karakas hopes to make a return trip to Greece in the next year or so—if he can slip away from the office. “Coming to work every day is a joy, although it unfortunately means I am away from my wife.”
He and his wife, Sophia, have been married for 62 years, and despite his long hours and busy schedule, his maxim to “love your partner as much as you love yourself” has held him in good stead.
And Karakas has no intention of slowing down. “When older people slow down, they lose the drive to enjoy their remaining years,” he says. “If they don’t work, they should volunteer—anything to stay active and continue to contribute.”
This spring, Karakas received an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree from UMSL in recognition of his dedication and support. But while he appreciates plaudits, he considers his contributions to be nothing more than repayment of a debt.
“The Lord has given me these extra years to give back a portion of what I’ve earned and achieved, and I’m trying my best to do just that.”