In Her Father's Name: Paula Fasseas Supports Students Studying Greek Culture

May 27, 2021

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Paula and Peter Fasseas and James P. Sfarnas
Paula and Peter Fasseas and James P. Sfarnas

A new scholarship was recently established at the University of Arizona through the Hellenic Cultural Foundation in honor of James P. Sfarnas, funded by a generous donation from his daughter, Paula Fasseas, and her husband, Peter Fasseas.

The scholarship supports undergraduate and graduate students studying Greek language, civilization, and culture in the School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences or in the Department of Religious Studies and Classics in the College of Humanities.

“My father was always very proud of his Greek heritage and culture. And he loved Tucson,” Paula said. “I think that he would just love knowing that there was an endowment in his name to help students learn about the Classics.”

A Civic Leader

James “Jim” Sfarnas was born in 1919 of Greek immigrants in Pittston, Pa., and served in World War II as a captain in the Air Force. His passion for the desert and his dedication to quality family life drew him to Tucson, Ariz., in the 1950s, together with his wife, Ione. He loved Tucson from the day he arrived from New York in his double-breasted suit, Paula said.

He opened the Saddle and Sirloin Supper Club in the early 1950s and booked acts such as The Platters, Mills Brothers, Nelson Eddy, and the original Beverly Hillbillies. In the late 1960s, he became the general manager of the Old Pueblo Club.

Jim was also involved in the Tucson community. He was the founding president of the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Clinic, which provided medical care to underserved communities, served on the national board of the Asthmatic Foundation, and chaired the Tucson Beautiful Committee. He was also president of the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church.

Jim cared deeply about preserving Greek language and culture in his community. In 1983, Jim, together with other Greek community members, created the Hellenic Cultural Foundation, which promotes the study of Greek language, culture, and civilization at the University of Arizona.

Inspired to Give Back

Paula says her commitment to philanthropy and serving the community was inspired by her dad, a value she has passed on to her own children.

”He taught us from the time we were young children to always give back, and how lucky we were to live in this great country and to have these opportunities,” Paula said.

Paula grew up in Tucson and went to the University of Arizona for one semester before getting married to Peter Fasseas, who worked in the Illinois attorney general’s office, in 1975. She moved to Chicago and received her undergraduate degree from DePaul and her MBA from the University of Chicago.

The couple launched their business in 1978, purchasing North Community Bank, a one-office bank, which would grow to become the Metropolitan Bank Group, the largest private bank holding company in Illinois.

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River Roland Ramirez at the ruins of Paestum
River Roland Ramirez, the first recipient of the James P. Sfarnas Hellenic Studies Scholarship, in Italy at the ruins of Paestum, which contains three Greek temples.

A few months after her dad passed away, Paula and her family traveled to Crete – where her grandmother was from – and ended up bringing home a stray dog who followed them everywhere. That decision led to Paula’s daughter volunteering at a local animal shelter and discovering that more than 40,000 pets were dying in Chicago each year. To help, Paula founded PAWS Chicago in 1997.

Paula’s voice becomes animated when she talks about PAWS Chicago, which she has turned into the largest no-kill animal shelter in the Midwest. “It’s not just adoption. That’s the easy part. We also have a huge medical center where we can take in animals from the 15 highest kill states and give them medical treatment. We go door-to-door into under-resourced communities of Chicago and offer free spay/neuter services and vet care,” Paula said.

Paula and Peter Fasseas also support numerous other charities and gave a multimillion-dollar gift to the University of Arizona toward the construction of the Peter and Paula Fasseas Cancer Clinic, which opened in 2007.

‘We had always wanted to do something for Tucson and this felt perfect,” Paula said. “We live here part-time and really love the community.”

Paula says her Greek heritage instilled in her a love of family, community, and learning. “The fundamentals of so much of what we do and cherish in our country today goes back to great Greek thinkers,” Paula said. “I’m really excited to see students wanting to learn about the Classics and not just regard everything that’s old as not being relevant today, because it is all relevant.”

Supporting the Next Generation

“Paula and Peter are close members of the Greek community, and they’re very committed to the mission of the Hellenic Cultural Foundation,” said Anthropology Professor Mary Voyatzis, former president of the foundation. “I’m so pleased about this scholarship because it means that Jim’s memory will live on and our students will be supported.”

River Roland Ramirez is the first recipient of the scholarship and is working on his master’s in Classics, with an emphasis in archaeology. The scholarship will support his studies in ancient Greek colonization and mobility and allow him to travel to Greece for the first time to participate in the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, which is co-directed by Voyatzis.

“I am so happy and grateful to be the very first recipient of the James P. Sfarnas Hellenic Studies Scholarship, and I want to express my sincere gratitude to the Hellenic Cultural Foundation and to the Fasseas family for their generous support!” River said. “This award means so much to me, and I am honored and inspired to further pursue my love of Greek studies in the memory of Jim Sfarnas.”

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This story was included in the Summer 2021 Developments newsletter.