All who know Costa Vertzayias are struck by one or both of the following two attributes:
His passion and dedication to causes that he espouses; and his fluency in both Greek and English which gives him an extraordinary capacity to relate to both Greek migrants and Australian born persons of Greek heritage.
Indeed, migrant Greeks identify readily with and consider him one of their own whilst second and third generation Greek Australians see him as one of them.
How does this duality arise? The answer is simple just as history determines a country’s future course or reaction to an event (see Israeli-Arab, Indian-Pakistani, Irish-English conflicts) so does one’s personal background. We are all products of our environments and family history is a major component of this environment.
Costa’s parents both came (co-incidentally) to Australia in 1947. His father was a seaman who had served with the Royal Navy during World War 2 and his mother came from Alexandria, Egypt. Although, neither came from Greece, they were both proud of their Greek heritage, a quality they instilled in Costa who was born in Sydney in 1952. Dionysios, his father did various jobs, never taking a day off until his retirement. He taught Costa the importance of hard, honest work. His mother Dialecti, was an educated woman (unusual for a migrant woman of her time) and instilled in Costa that education was more important than anything in life. She taught him Greek and a love of for the Greek language and history. It is an all consuming passion that stands out like a beacon to which he always sails. His mother also taught him that kindness and thoughtfulness for others must be a part of one’s life no matter how successful one becomes. Costa always quotes a verse she taught him:
Pwte sou mi perifroneis ta katw skalopatia dioti sa afta prwto pateis kai vgaines sta palatia. (It is a rhyming cuplet and may be loosely translated as follows:
“Do not with disdain on the lower steps look down tis on these you must first reach to attain the crown”.
A third attribute that Costa has in great abundance of gentle persuasion. He is able to plant a seed, sow an idea and get the consensus of those about him so successfully that even rivals feel that it was a joint decision. He has achieved much in this way the best example being that of the Australian Hellenic Council (AHC) which he painstakingly put together in 1992. The AHC is an umbrella organisation which unites peak Greek Australian organisations on issues of universal importance to the Greek Australian Community. Costa was able to bring together (albeit for a relatively short time) the (perpetually warring) Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW and almost all other organisations. The AHC is still the body that sends representative delegations to Canberra. Costa led these delegations in meetings with all Australian Prime Ministers from Bob Hawke to Kevin Rudd.
We have jumped the gun, however, because Costa’s involvement in Community affairs began at an early age. Whilst still a student at South Sydney Boys High School and during his HSC year in 1970 he organised the first soccer team for St John’s Anglican Church at Maroubra and thereafter at St Spyridon Church, his then local parish. The team competed in the Protestant Churches Association and under Costa’s captaincy won the competition in 1973 and 1974. However, in 1974 the Invasion and occupation of Cyprus by Turkish troops struck a cord in Costa’s heart. At this time, he was a (Foundation Year) law student at the University of NSW and he founded the Hellenic Society at that University in an attempt to muster students to become aware of the problem and to raise humanitarian aid for the 200,000 refugees on the Island. Thereafter, he was actively involved in the Justice for Cyprus Committee until 1999 serving as its secretary for most of those years. His interest in a just solution for Cyprus remains strong.
After establishing the Hellenic Society at UNSW he remained at the helm as President for the years 1974-1977.
During this time he organised the first student exchange programme between Australian Universities and Athens University. He has been involved in various exchange and hospitality programmes since then.
Greek migrants in Australia as a rule identify with their local Church Parish or their region of origin in Greece establishing “brotherhoods” bearing the name of their province or island. Costa’s mother’s origin was from Castellorizo a source of many pre WW2 migrants to Australia such as the Paspaley, Kailis, Bolkus, Georgas, and Photios families. One of the leading Greek brotherhoods and a Kingsford landmark (until recently) was the Castellorizian Club. Costa was a member of its Board of Directors in 1977 to 1985, 1994-1998, 2000-2001 and President of the Club for 7 years. In 1981 the Club established the Castellorizian Nursing Home at Kensington and Costa has been the joint licensee and a trustee since that time.
Costa’s involvement with the Castellorizan Club was the commencement of a life-time interest in Community affairs that continues unabated to the present day. In 1979 he became the Foundation Secretary of the Federation of Hellenic Associations, a member of its Board of Directors during the period 1979-2000 and its President from 1989-2000. As President of the Federation of Hellenic Associations Costa negotiated the acquisition of 40 hectares of land at Kemps Creek from the NSW State Government for the establishment of a Greek Cultural Centre. He was also involved in the promotion of the “Ancient Macedonia Exhibition” at Sydney’s Australian Museum in 1988-1989.
During 1988-1990 he was a member of the executive of the Ethnic Communities’ Council (NSW).
In relation to the Macedonian Issue he was appointed by then Prime Minister Paul Keating as a member of a three person consultative committee to advise him of what was then a very volatile community issue.
Costa feels proud of his efforts to establish “a sister city affiliation” between the municipal Councils of Rockdale (Sydney) and Glyfada (Athens). This has led to the holding of many events at Brighton (in the Rockdale Municipality. He has also organised the transportation and erection of a statue of Spyridon Louis (first marathon winner in the 1896 Athens Olympic Games) on the Brighton foreshore.
In the field of education Costa has been a member of the Australian Archaeological Institute of Athens (Sydney University) since its establishment in 1985 and was instrumental in the purchase of the Institute’s premises in Athens on behalf of Sydney University.
Costa’s best known achievement was as Chairman of the Community Fund Raising Committee which raised $300,000.00 to establish Modern Greek Studies on a permanent basis at the University of NSW. He has been the Chairman of the Foundation of Hellenic Studies at UNSW since 1995. In 1998 he endowed a scholarship at UNSW for exchange students in memory of his parents. He also assisted in the establishment of Modern Greek Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney.
In 1999 he was the liaison between Athens University and the UNSW to sign a Protocol for Student Exchange Programmes. Costa is a household name in the Greek Australian Community as a result of being elected to the International Board of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE is its Greek acronym) in December 1997. He was the international vice-president and President/Co-Ordinator for Oceania until December 2006. In this capacity he was involved in many exciting pioneering and beneficial activities such as:
- Co-ordinating a community fundraising radiothon that raised $250,000.00 to build medical centres in former Soviet Union Countries ( Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine) in 1998.
- Liaised and assisted in the “Ancient Olympics Artefacts Exhibition” at the Powerhouse Museum for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
- Liaison officer with SOCOG and the Hellenic National Olympic Committee during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
- Assisted in the signing of an affiliation agreement between the Olympic Cities of Sydney and Athens
- Organised the Australian Team to participate in the first “Elliniada Games”(Pan Hellenic Diaspora Games) held in Thessaloniki, Greece in June 2003. The Australian Team won the football competition.
- Chairman of the Sydney Hellenic Committee which in association with the Australian Olympic Committee raised $120,000.00 for the Australian Olympic Team for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
- Being the only Australian Member of the National Hellenic Olympic Committee for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
- Instituting a volunteer programme for the assistance of refugees from the Former Soviet Union to Thrace, Greece.
- Organised and chaired the inaugural Pan Hellenic Games held in Sydney in March 2005.The Games were so successful that they have been instituted as the most important event in the Greek Australian Community. After Sydney the Pan Hellenic Games were held in Adelaide in 2007, Melbourne in 2009, and Darwin in 2011. On all occasions under the aegis of all State Premiers.
- Liaised between the Greek and Australian Governments for the signing of a Social Security Agreement between the two countries in 2008.
- Represented the Hellenic Council and other parties on a pro bono basis in the Equal Opportunity Tribunal in test cases which have become precedents in the area of anti-discrimination law.
One could be forgiven that Costa has spent the last 40 years in community affairs and nothing else, This is far from the truth as he has operated a legal practice in the Sydney suburb of Mascot for over 30 years. As such he has been the honorary solicitor for countless non-profit organisations such as the Hellenic Community of Mascot, St Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Church, the Pan Macedonian Association of NSW, the Castellorizian Club, the Pan Rhodian Association, the Kalymnian Brotherhood, the Pan Pontian Association, the Thessaloniki Association, the Federation of Hellenic Associations, the Greeks from Constantinople Association and many more. He has also provided pro bono legal services for many in the South Sydney District in accordance with what his mother taught him as a child.
It is thus, not surprising that he has not become wealthy as a lawyer but he has no regrets,
Just as he has no regrets about knocking back offers from both major political parties.
He considers himself fortunate to have married Liana,his wife of 39 years who has given him great moral support and encouragement at great personal cost and sacrifice. They have 2 children,twins – Dion and Dioni. Incidentally, Costa and Dion, to date the only two father and son graduates from UNSW Law School and the only father and son who have served as Presidents of the UNSW Hellenic Society.
In between all of the above Costa has also found time to write two books, one on the Greek Communities of Southern Italy and the other on the Greek Civil War and two theatrical plays. Although now retired from most official positions he still serves on an honorary capacity and makes himself available on call to assist every worthy cause.