Supreme Court Justice Emilios Kyrou. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Emilios Kyrou does not do things by halves.
He was the dux of his high school before graduating with a law and commerce degree from Melbourne University – with honours – soon after.
Sheer hard work then earned him a reputation as a highly-respected and meticulous lawyer who was an expert in too many areas of law to single out.
So no one was surprised when he became only the second practising solicitor in Victoria’s history to be appointed directly to the Supreme Court bench four years ago.
But when Justice Kyrou sat down with his parents to write their family history a year later, what was initially meant to be a family publication soon surpassed even his own expectations.
The result is his self-published memoir, Call Me Emilios, which will be officially launched at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum tonight.
What makes the 53-year-old’s life story so fascinating is the fact he has achieved so much despite such a humble beginning.
He was born in a small, poor and predominantly self-sufficient farming village in northern Greece called Sfikia.
His father Yiannis, or John, left school at the age of eight to work as a shepherd herding sheep and goats in the hills. His mother Stergiani, known as Stella, left school at nine to work in the family’s wheat and corn fields, before later working at tobacco and cotton farms.
The home they shared with their extended family had no electricity, gas or running water. The young couple were uneducated, poverty-stricken and unfamiliar with the world beyond the village’s nearest towns when they gave birth to their first son in 1959.
As was tradition in the village, the appointed godparent took the newborn to church for the baptism without the parents or relatives in attendance.
The godparent also had the customary right to choose the baby’s name, which would be kept secret until it was announced by the priest and children from the neighbourhood would race back to the parents to tell them what it was.
‘‘What sort of name is that,’’ Justice Kyrou’s mother exclaimed upon learning that the usual tradition of naming the first-born son after his paternal grandfather had been bypassed.
‘‘Emilios’’ had been the name of the main male character in a best-selling, Romeo and Juliet-style romantic tragedy written in 1920, called The Beautiful Girl of Peran.
Another son followed in 1963, who was baptised as Theodoros, named after his godfather’s father.
From an early age, Justice Kyrou recalls his parents emphasising the importance of getting an education. ‘‘You must get an education otherwise you will be poor and ignorant like us,’’ they said.
Luckily, he liked reading, enjoyed school and was keen to do well.
When an agreement was struck between Greece in the 1950s for assisted migration to Australia with free passage on a ship, accommodation in a migrant hostel in a land where there was apparently plenty of work, Justice Kyrou’s parents lodged an application.
Despite their passport containing the wrong surname of Kyropoulos, in addition to multiple other anomalies, the application was granted and on April 5, 1968, the family arrived in Melbourne on the Ellinis passenger ship after a 28-day journey. None of them spoke English.
They settled at the Broadmeadows Migrant Hostel where his parents struggled to find work.
Once factory jobs were eventually found, the family lived into several backyard bungalows before settling in shared houses with other Greek migrants in the same area. Some of the homes even had televisions.
‘‘I remember watching the evening news and hearing the constant references to degrees,’’ he writes. ‘‘I mistook the word for Greeks and was confused because I thought the weather presenter was announcing how many Greeks had arrived in Melbourne that day.’’
But racism was rife at the primary school he attended.
‘‘I remember being called wog, greaser, dago, choc, bald choc, spag and other derogatory, racist names at school,’’ he writes. ‘‘Those names were very hurtful and dented my self-esteem. I felt very ostracised, particularly in the first months.’’
His home-made clothes and the very short haircuts his father gave him did little to help him fit in. Nor did his very foreign name.
When he changed schools he insisted on being called ‘‘John’’ to attract less attention and jibes.
He continued doing well at school, read more than necessary and completed his assignments and homework with enthusiasm.
Having continued interpreting for his parents to help them get work in addition to often having to plead their causes, Justice Kyrou realised the importance of knowing one’s rights. He believes this was the reason behind him wanting to become a lawyer.
He eventually reverted back to his Christian name and the family was granted permanent residency in Australia – under the correct surname of Kyrou – in 1977. Soon after Emilios Kyrou was named dux of Upfield High School.
He was accepted into Melbourne University and graduated with the highest mark of male students in 1982.
On his first day as an articled clerk the following year, he was assigned to work with a senior litigation partner named Bernard Teague.
Ironically, his mentor went on to become Victoria’s first practising solicitor to be appointed directly as a justice of the Supreme Court. Many years later, Justice Kyrou followed.
Since his appointment to the bench in 2008, in between overseeing some of the state’s most complex civil and criminal trials, Justice Kyrou has also found time to trace his family history.
‘‘I was keen to capture my parents’ story and their life and what they could remember about life in Greece, I guess out of respect for them, but also for generations in the family to come,’’ he said.
As he reflected on issues such as racism experienced by so many migrants when they too arrived, he thought there might be a more powerful social message worth spreading beyond just his immediate family.
Several of his judicial colleagues agreed, so he decided to self-publish and broaden his readership.
Outside work, Justice Kyrou remains a devoted son, brother to Theo (who became a doctor), and husband to Peris with whom he has four children. He said he loved his adopted country and appreciated that all of his experiences had made him the tolerant, patient and compassionate man – and judge – he is today.
‘‘My background is very enriching, not withstanding all the difficulties, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,’’ he said.
He has also not ruled out getting the book published in Greek so his parents – whom he refers to as his heroes and says he owes for everything – can read it for themselves.
And when he retires there might be a sequel.
Call Me Emilios is available at the Law Institute of Victoria Bookshop, 470 Bourke Street. Phone (03) 9607 9348 or email@example.com
Chief Justice Emilios Kyrou launched his book Call Me Emilios last week, here is an excerpt from the speech he made on the day paying special tribute to his heroes: his parents John and Stella.
Those of you who have read it will know that I was named after the hero of a 1920s Greek romance novel called The Beautiful Girl of Peran. My book also has heroes, and they are my parents, John and Stella.
First and foremost, the book is a celebration of the pioneering spirit of the migrants of my parents’ generation. They are heroes because they left their homes and familiar environments and travelled to a foreign country about which they knew little, in order to give themselves and their children a chance for a better life. They are the selfless generation, the generation of providers and protectors.
They are now old and frail and their numbers are dwindling. We, their children, in living our comfortable and secure lives, must never forget that our parents’ sacrifices created the opportunities for our advancement. We are forever in their debt and must always respect them and their legacy. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book was that I learned so much about my parents and Greek history.
For example, until I started writing the book, I did not know that people in my village risked their lives by protecting five Jewish families during the Second World War. In the course of writing the book, the old and tattered family photographs became more meaningful. They provided a visual context for my parents’ stories about their upbringing. My parents’ lives were poor in material terms but they were rich in dignity and determination. My book is also a celebration of the opportunities that Australia has provided for many generations of migrants.
The story of a poor child migrant who makes good in Australia through the power of education is not unique. Although there are many things that we can complain about, we should never lose sight of the fact that, in this country, a person who pursues study or a trade and who is prepared to work hard can transform his or her life in ways that are not possible in many parts of the world. We remain a land of opportunity where merit counts. There are also some dark moments in the book. It describes in a raw and painful way the racism that I experienced as a child.
Racially motivated bullying can destroy self-esteem, create disharmony within families and ruin lives. It is particularly problematic for children because most children are not well equipped to combat it. Bullying and discrimination are perennial issues. How effectively they are dealt with is a measure of a society’s maturity and compassion. Racism caused me to change my name and to deny my identity. It caused me to be embarrassed of my parents and to be ashamed of my Greek background. Thankfully, all that changed in my mid teens.
I realised that I should be proud of my parents and respect them for all the sacrifices that they had made. I also came to understand how wrong I was to be ashamed of being Greek. Greeks have a rich and proud history and in many ways laid the foundations of modern civilisation. And Greek Australians have been making significant contributions to Australian society for decades. These are matters that should be openly celebrated rather than concealed and disowned. In enlightened communities, diversity is fostered rather than suppressed and no one is forced to deny his or her identity, family, culture, religion or heritage. This is particularly important for children who can be scarred for life if they are disconnected from their families and communities.
To belong is empowering. To be an outsider can be crushing. Australia has come a long way since I arrived here in 1968. Exotic names, foods and customs which were once ridiculed are now fashionable. However, we must not be complacent. We must always be vigilant to ensure that our nation continues to accept and celebrate each person for who they are and what they can contribute, rather than marginalise anyone because they are different. I hope that my book contributes to an understanding of these issues.