It’s been more than 70 summers since the Pancretan Association of America held its biennial national convention in Akron.
Back then — the summer of 1938 to be exact — the event was headquartered at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Akron and the Cretan population consisted primarily of immigrants straight from the Greek isle and their first generation American descendants.
This year, the gathering met at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge in East Akron to kick off the affair with the traditional Cretan Picnic on Sunday afternoon.
The typically mercurial Ohio weather alternated between ominous dark clouds and beaming hot sun while the few hundred attendees enjoyed an afternoon of food, dance, music and fellowship.
The 80-member Cretan Association of Akron was chosen to host the national convention, with a week of events aimed at Greeks of Cretan descent from around the country, from the isle itself, and from countries as far away as Australia.
Jason Nicolacakis, 43, the Akron chapter’s marketing manager for the 2013 convention, said the city of Akron was not the national organization’s original choice for the 43rd biennial gathering. But when the host city was forced to cancel, the national organization reached out to its members and the Akron chapter quickly stepped in with a proposal.
Garnering help from other area chapters, including Canton and Cleveland, they pulled the event together in a little over a year, less than half the standard time cities are usually given.
“The Greek community in the Akron area is strong in general and we’re very excited to host it after so many years. The organization has grown since then and the city has changed since then, so we’re ecstatic to show what Akron and Northeast Ohio have to offer,” Nicolacakis said.
Sunday’s offerings included live music performed by the Giorgos Mahiouthakis Orchestra, which flew in from Crete for the event. The orchestra performed authentic music on traditional instruments such as the Cretan lyra, a lute-like string instrument that is bowed like a tiny cello, backed by acoustic guitar, electric bass and drums.
Picnickers dined on lamb shanks, gyros and souvlaki, rusk bread topped with feta cheese and tomatoes, and desserts such as kalitsounia.
Meanwhile, children made ice cream and hung out with a few farm animals, while older attendees reunited with folks they had not seen in years.
Steve Saviolis of Akron is one of the few members still walking who remembers the 1938 shindig in downtown Akron.
“It was a big thing,” the 85-year-old said.
“Just like this one, but the organization was just beginning. Most of them started around the late 1920s. And now we’re all over the world,” Saviolis said.
Saviolis, a Youngstown native, recalls being a wide-eyed 9-year-old and marveling at the Mayflower’s grand ballroom, and later dancing in traditional Cretan garb at the picnic.
All these decades later, Saviolis — who twice served as the national association’s regional governor — was looking forward to seeing his own young grandchildren dance.
“Yeah, it hits your heart, really,” he said, smiling.
Saviolis said back in the day, men would “get all decked out” in formal dress for the picnic.
“It was a big thing. I mean they wore nice suit coats and vests, and it was 90 degrees outside and all the food was just in big pots and you helped yourself,” he said.
In these modern times, picnickers purchase food and drink tickets and stand in line while teams of men man the grills and make sure the souvlaki and lamb are hot and fresh.
For the Cretan Association of Akron, hosting the convention was a way to highlight their proud Cretan and Cretan-American ties, as well as promote their adopted region and country.
“That was important for us because a lot of people might wonder, ‘Why would I go to Akron, Ohio, for a week for my vacation and take my family when I could find a beach somewhere?” Nicolacakis said.
“It’s high value for your dollar and there’s a lot of unique things in the area, and we’re finding out that people are interested to see those things, so we thought that would be good for the community too,” he said.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758.