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Mother's Day : Son's Candidacy Fulfills American Dream for Euterpe Dukakis

May 26, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The questions came fast and furious.

"Did you favor your son marrying a Jewish woman?" one youngster wanted to know. "Was he stubborn as a child?" wondered another.

Euterpe Dukakis, 84, Michael's mom, a Greek immigrant and very possibly the next presidential mother, smiled benignly like the teacher she once was and tried to explain.

No, she said, she wasn't at all bothered that Kitty Dukakis is Jewish, although initially she was a little concerned about her daughter-in-law's previous divorce.

And yes, Michael Dukakis certainly was stubborn as a child. "But stubbornness can be a good quality," she said. After all, it was his perseverance that got him to the brink of the Democratic presidential nomination.

Her son's political ambitions, in fact, were what Euterpe had come to discuss with these students at Stephens Junior High School.

More than that, she had come to assure them that anything is possible in this "wonderful country," where even an immigrant's son can aspire to be president.

"When I think of all those people who came to a strange country from a strange land. . . ." mused Euterpe, who was born in the town of Larissa in Thessaly, a region of northern Greece, and emigrated to the United States in 1912 at the age of 9. "You've heard of the American dream. If there would be a fulfillment of that dream, it would be for Michael Dukakis--a first-generation American--to become president of the United States."

The visit had been arranged by Joseph Palumbo, a Dukakis delegate and teacher of history and social science at the school. Located on Long Beach's economically disadvantaged west side, Stephens has a largely minority enrollment including many students from Asian, Latino and Filipino immigrant families.

"Her story is very similar to theirs," said Palumbo, 26. "Hopefully the kids will see that through hard work and discipline you can achieve something. This will build esteem for the whole school."

Speaking at times so softly that she was barely audible, the petite, silver-haired woman began in the campus library with a question-and-answer session before a group of about 70 children selected by their teachers. Next she addressed the student council, and finally she drank cranberry juice from a paper cup at a teachers' reception.

The visit was sandwiched into a day of campaigning on behalf of her son in the state's June 7 presidential primary. The day began with an appearance at Leisure World, a retirement community in Seal Beach, and ended with an evening reception at a Greek Orthodox church in Redondo Beach.

Almost since the beginning of her son's bid for the presidency, campaign workers said, Euterpe has been a full-time campaigner, traveling throughout the country with the energy of someone half her age.

At the school in Long Beach, she was philosophical and nostalgic, reminiscing freely about her own childhood and that of her famous son, whose picture adorned the cover of an issue of Time magazine conveniently displayed on a nearby shelf. Wide-eyed, the children learned, for instance, that Michael Dukakis:

Ran for student body president in the third grade and won, but was defeated for senior class president by a boy named Bob Wool.

Was a good athlete, especially in tennis and track, but wasn't allowed to play football because "we thought it was too dangerous."

Originally wanted to be a doctor but switched to politics after his first semester in college.

Rarely sees his mother anymore, except on special occasions such as last Sunday night, when he came home for dinner accompanied by a retinue of Secret Service agents.

Euterpe talked about her own life, too, including the time in 1925 when she was denied a teaching job near Boston because the local Ku Klux Klan didn't approve of foreign-born teachers. She described how she learned English in six months because children can "learn languages through their pores." She even recalled her first dinner in America: lamb chops, french-fried potatoes and salad.

"It's been my favorite meal ever since," Euterpe said. "It was a pretty good dinner, and my life has been a pretty good life."

And she asked the kids questions. What do they do in school? How many of them know Latin? How does their student government work? "These are beautiful children," she said in an interview afterward. "I have great hopes for them."

The admiration seemed mutual.

"You can tell they have a really strong bond," said Daniel Lawrence, 15, speaking of Euterpe and her son. "I don't know if my mom, when she's 84, will want to fly around the country talking about me."

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