Nick Polites recalls his journey

A pioneer of Australian Greek welfare services, staunch advocate for wider migrant services, and legendary jazz musician, Nick Polites tells his life story in his own words

Now approaching his 90th birthday, Nick Polites OAM was a pioneer of Australian Greek welfare services, a staunch advocate for wider migrant services in the formative years of multicultural public policy development, and is a legendary jazz musician.

This article first appeared as a ‘visual narrative’ at an Emerald Hill Library and Heritage Centre exhibition over February and March 2017. The exhibition was curated by Lella Cariddi with the support of the City of Port Phillip and under the umbrella of the Multicultural Arts Victoria project ‘What Happened at the Pier’.

This is the story of Nick Polites’ life in his own words, as told to Con Pagonis.

“I was born in Melbourne in 1927, the third child of Theodore Polites and Philia Tsarouchas.

My father first emigrated from the island of Lefkas, a small island near Ithaca in the Adriatic Sea, to South Africa in 1898. And from South Africa he sailed to Australia in the early 1900s.

In the late nineteenth century there were very few Greeks coming to Australia, however there was a fledgling Greek community in Melbourne; primarily from the Greek Islands of Ithaca, Kythera, and Kastellorizo. And they had formally established themselves in 1897 as the Greek Community of Australia.
A significant push factor for prospective migrants at this time was an olive tree disease which devastated the Greek economy and prompted mass migration, particularly to the United States.

My father had two brothers and a widowed mother. The brothers wanted to go to the US but the family did not have enough funds to send them. In 1899 my father left Lefkas, with his brother, my uncle John, in search of income to support the family back home.

Theodore and John made their way to Cairo via Athens, and then sailed south down the Nile River. They continued down eastern Africa to South Africa unaware that the Boer War was underway. They found some work in Cape Town and sent money home to their mother.

Australian soldiers were part of the British Imperial Forces engaged in the Boer War. While in South Africa these two boys, aged 16 and 19 respectively, were befriended by Australian soldiers, who encouraged them to go to Australia where they would help them to find work. So in the early 1900s, the boys boarded a merchant ship on route to Australia. On arrival in Sydney though, they quickly realised that the main Greek Australian community hub was Melbourne.

In the prevailing racism of that time, people from the Southern Mediterranean were regarded almost as ‘Asian’ and were not able to find employment in factories easily. Italians tended to work in fruit and vegetable shops, and Greeks typically had confectionary and fish & chips shops. This level of racism towards Greeks and Italians continued until the aftermath of the Second World War.

My father Theodore started out his working life in Australia as a self–employed man, beginning with a fruit cart round in inner Melbourne, to eventually running a number of small businesses.

During the First World War, he operated tea rooms on Beaconsfield Parade, near St Kilda Pier and near the old St Moritz ice skating rink.

Around 1920 Theodore passed this business on to his brother John and he established a restaurant in the city on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane (in what he told people was the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere). He continued to operate that business until the lease ran out in 1921.

My mother, Philia Tsarouchas and her family were WWI refugees from Alatsata near Smyrna, in Asia Minor. She was born in 1897, and while astutely intelligent, being a girl, she never had a chance to go to school. Like so many people of Greek heritage living in Asia Minor, in 1914, with the imminent explosion of World War I, her family was forced to leave Alatsata. At the end of the war, in 1919, they returned to their hometown, but with Turkey being poised to take over the entire region, they were again forced to leave in 1922 with only two weeks’ notice, and the family fled to mainland Greece.
These displacements swelled mainland Greece’s population by a third, with people arriving there as paupers, bereft of their land holdings.

After the first expulsion of 1914, my mother was sent to a monastery on the island of Samos to learn to paint religious icons. She was so good at this that merchants would come along on donkey-driven trucks to buy icons from her. And her small enterprise helped the family to survive.

After the second expulsion, my mother’s older brother John who was living in Alexandria, Egypt, suggested she should go and live with him. She was there for one year, where she did domestic work with an Italian family, and learned to speak Italian and French.

My mother was 26 by the time Con, another one of her brothers who had been living in Australia since 1912, arranged for her to emigrate and financed the cost for her journey to Australia. She travelled with other relatives arriving in Melbourne in 1923. By then, a good number of people from the township of Alatsata had come to Melbourne and settled around South Melbourne and surrounding suburbs.

My parents met and married in Melbourne in 1924; relatively late (particularly for those times) for both of them. My mother being in her late twenties, and my father in his early forties.

My parents had four children – Helen in 1925, Peter in 1926, myself (Nicholas) in 1927, and Maria in 1929. The family initially lived in St Kilda and then Elwood.

At home, we didn’t want for anything. My mother was family-centred, but always kept a watchful eye about social mores which were stricter for girls than boys, to the extent that my sisters could only consider marrying someone who was also Greek.

I went to Elwood Primary School and then Melbourne High School. At primary school I won an academic prize which was subsequently withdrawn on the grounds that my father was not naturalised, albeit that I was Australian-born. This injustice became a great motivator in my academic life thereafter. I went on to be dux of my school and captain of the school football team. However, outside of school Greeks were not allowed to play in Australian football and cricket teams; so I and other Greek friends went on to establish our own football team which we called “The Olympic”.

In 1945 I got called up for military service, but on the same day two letters came, one from the Government to say I had to report for military duty and one from Melbourne University to say that, as one of a handful of the university’s top students, my WWII military service was deferred. At the age of 20, I graduated from the University of Melbourne with a degree in Commerce. I then went on to do a second degree in Arts, majoring in history and philosophy. And in 1954 I did what is now known as a “gap year”; travelling to London and driving to Greece.

My father explored business opportunities in Mildura and Tasmania. Eventually though he learned about the confectionary business. When the last manager of the former Playhouse Theatre (in the area now known as Southbank) moved on, the owner employed my father to manage the candy bar. Impressed with my father’s ability, the owner paid him a second wage to also manage the theatre. As he wasn’t fluent in English, through the years of competition between silent movies and then “talkies”, my father employed a secretary whom he paid at above the award to assist him with the paperwork. When the depression was at its worst around 1930-31, the theatre’s name changed from The Playhouse to The David Garrick Theatre.

Soon after, my father was also operating a confectionary store opposite Flinders Street Railway Station, on the corner of Elizabeth Street – “Green Gate Confectionary” (named after one of the historic gates into London). It was in this business that he established the family’s wealth.

After I graduated with a Batchelor of Commerce, my father bought a family confectionary factory – Green Gate Confectionary – on Spencer Street. I was the CEO from 1949 until 1971. We manufactured chocolates, toffees, snowballs, and the like. When at the age of 41 a Chicago-based company made me a generous offer for the business, we decided to sell it.

Up to the early seventies there were no Greek-speaking social support services whatsoever for Greek Australians. Mothers didn’t know what to do with rebellious daughters, and because of a perceived lack of moral and ethical teaching, Greek kids would be sent back to Greece to be educated.

This opened up the opportunity for me to work in the field of community services and social policy, particularly around cross-cultural family issues for the Greek-Australian community.

I started by volunteering at the Australian Greek Welfare Society which I had helped to establish in 1972. But in order to be able to get government grants the agency would have had to employ qualified staff. As at the time (1973) there were no qualified Greek-speaking social workers in Melbourne, I went back to university to do a social work degree which, with credits from previous studies, I completed in two years.

Building on experience as a social work practitioner I was also called on to work in social public policy development. Most significantly this included membership of the Galbally Committee that reviewed Australia’s multicultural public policy in the late 1970s. The Fraser Government’s acceptance of the committee’s recommendations resulted in key parameters of Australian multiculturalism that we are all familiar with today – the establishment of SBS TV, Ethnic Communities’ Councils, Migrant Resource Centres and so on. In 1981 I was proud to receive the Order of Australia medal for my contributions.

Going back to 1938, when I was only 11 years old, a friend from The Olympic footy team loaned me some jazz records, and said ‘listen to these’. Once I started listening to tunes like Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues – I went red in the face and realised that this was what I wanted to do. I was immediately hooked on jazz. However it was a battle to convince my parents, who expected their sons to become doctors and lawyers, to allow me to learn a musical instrument. They considered it would be a distraction from my academic studies. My brother Peter did become a lawyer. Eventually they relented and at the age of 14 I started teaching myself to play the alto saxophone and almost immediately was offered a job with Russ Marshall’s Dance Band. At 16 I took up the clarinet and joined the Varsity Vipers band at Melbourne University. Because many older musicians had been called-up into military service, I was sought after to join bands well before I had achieved any sort of proficiency.

I went on to perform in a succession of leading Melbourne bands performing traditional jazz, right up to the present. These bands all played what is known as New Orleans revival jazz; a subgenre of jazz internationally popular circa 1940. I commenced my recording career with Frank Johnson’s Dixilanders on the Verve label in 1951. Today I continue to perform regularly with The Louisiana Shakers, a band I joined in 1994 and with whom I have toured internationally and recorded several CDs. Over my career as a musician I have had the opportunity to play alongside jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and New Orleans clarinettist George Lewis, on whom I modelled my own playing style.

As I approach my ninetieth birthday, I am proud of my family’s migration story – from humble and challenging circumstances on my father’s small Adriatic island and my mother’s township in Asia Minor, to the prosperity offered by life in Australia; and the opportunity to contribute in commerce, the law, community development, and music.”