“No matter where he was, he developed strong relationships,” Peter Vaselopulos recalls of his father, Leon, a 1950 Cooper Union graduate who passed away last month. Between his relationship with renowned architect Ely Kahn and his strong bond with his three children, Vaselopulos surrounded himself with people who respected him in his lifetime and after. This Father’s Day, Vaselopulos’s children are comforted by their last present to their father - a gift to The Cooper Union in his memory.
Leon Vaselopulos was born in 1927 to Greek immigrants Anastasios and Mary Vaselopulos. Leon attended the High School of Industrial Design where he became skilled at drafting at a young age. After graduation he landed a position at famed architect Ely Kahn’s firm. Mr. Kahn took a liking to Vaselopulos after a few years of hard work. He told him he knew the president of The Cooper Union and he would be willing to write a letter to give him a chance to apply.
President Edwin S. Burdell responded to Mr. Kahn, “In reply to your note of July 23, I wish to say that we would be glad to have your friend, Leon Vaselopulos, make application for admission.”
Mr. Vaselopulos passed the admissions exams and enrolled in the night school in September, 1946. He continued to work for Mr. Kahn during the day, balancing the job with his classes, homework and a subway commute from his family’s apartment on Teller Avenue in the Bronx.
Leon took art classes in addition to his architecture curriculum. One of which was a drawing class with nude models. His mother discovered Leon’s portfolio of the nude drawings and destroyed them. Leon would tell the story jokingly, but recognized the cultural divide and was grateful for the expanded opportunities offered to him in New York.
He was awarded a certificate in architecture from the Art School in the 91st Annual Commencement on Wednesday, June 7, 1950. Mr. Vaselopulos saved the program as well as his letters of admission to The Cooper Union. After graduation, Leon continued working at Kahn & Jacobs, followed by Perera & Luckman and Skidmore, Owings & Merill. The majority of his work was developing contract drawings for schools, hospitals and airports. He became licensed in New York State in 1963 and took his skills to Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation.
Moving to Schenectady, New York in 1967, Leon spent the bulk of his career at the New York Education Department and the New York State University Construction Fund. He was the Project Coordinator at the State University Construction Fund, responsible for the administration of design and construction of campus facilities. He continued to use his drawing skills for “in-house” projects.
He married Peggy Stathatos in 1955 and together raised three children on Long Island: Maria, Tom and Peter. Though none of his children went to The Cooper Union, Mr. Vaselopulos raised them to know the importance of the school. “We all remembered how our father always used to wear his grey sweatshirt with the Cooper Union logo. He would share with us stories of Peter Cooper and the speech that Abraham Lincoln gave at The Great Hall during his first election,” says Peter Vaselopulos.
Four years ago, Leon Vaselopulos took Peter to his alma mater for a visit. A lover of historic architecture, Leon was eager to return to the Foundation Building. “My dad was able to speak with some of the students, who over 60 years later were in the same place he was,” Peter remembers. The two reminisced over beers at McSorley’s, and Peter was reminded how much The Cooper Union meant to him and his family.
Last month as Leon Vaselopulos grew very ill, his children wanted to give him one last Father's Day gift. Knowing his fondness for The Cooper Union, they decided on a gift to the school that would forever keep their father connected to Cooper. They decided on the $5,000 gift of a Great Hall chair, an opportunity reserved for alumni who graduated at least fifty years ago.
When we first spoke with Peter Vaselopulos about the gift, his father was in hospice. Leon’s children were able to present the gift to their father while he could still understand the significance. In fact, he appreciated their joke that they “splurged” on him with the chair in The Great Hall rather than Rose Auditorium. “The gift of a chair in The Great Hall provides our family with a lasting connection with the school,” Maria, Tom and Peter collectively say.
Leon Vaselopulos passed away on May 28, 2016. His plaque was installed shortly thereafter, reading “In Loving Memory of Leon Vaselopulos, Architect, Class of 1950.”