Philip Sarris hugs School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Aris Georgakakos after Sarris received the diploma he earned in 1952. Sarris didn't participate in Commencement after he finished his degree because he was drafted and sent off to Korea. (Photo: Scott Dinerman)
When Philip Sarris finished his civil engineering degree at Georgia Tech, he already had a job waiting.
Actually, in many ways, he had two jobs waiting. One was with Southern Railway, where Sarris had worked as a co-op student throughout his time at Tech. The other was with the United States Army, which drafted him and sent him off to Korea.
All of that meant Sarris didn’t cross the stage and officially collect his diploma in 1952.
On May 19, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Aris Georgakakos surprised Sarris with his six-decades-overdue diploma at a meeting of the Greek civic group Sarris has belonged to for decades.
“It means a lot,” Sarris said. “A lot of my family was there. I have a granddaughter; I guess they got to her and told her about this, and she came. I didn’t know that’s why she came. I thought she came just to see us.”
Philip Sarris holds the diploma he earned in 1952 but never actually received. (Photo: Scott Dinerman)
Sarris ended up serving two years in the Army and five years in the reserves before resuming his career with Southern — and then Norfolk Southern — where he worked for nearly 40 years.
He got married, had three sons, and now he has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He said he never thought much about the diploma he never received.
Until a few days ago.
The 88-year-old retired engineer is clearly surrounded by people who can keep a secret. Even after he arrived at the meeting of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, or AHEPA, he didn’t realize what was going on.
“When I sat down, all the tables were taken, basically. There was one seat open, and I went and sat, and [it was next to] a Georgia Tech professor in civil engineering,” Sarris said.
“I had no idea what he was there for.”
He didn’t even get suspicious when he heard the Georgia Tech Chamber Choir was coming to the meeting. His friends in AHEPA told him the group wanted to practice a few Greek songs ahead of a trip to Crete to see how they were doing with the language.
He had a lovely conversation with Georgakakos, that professor he happened to sit next to, talking about their work, their shared Greek heritage, and Georgia Tech.
Even when Georgakakos stood to speak, Sarris didn’t know why.
“They recognized him to come up and say a few words, and he started out talking about the year 1952. I was wondering, ‘What in the world?’ But he kept on it,” Sarris said. “I said, ‘Why’s he fixated on 1952? That’s the year I graduated.’ I started to think, is it something to do with me? That was the first inkling I got.” (You can read Georgakakos' remarks for yourself here.)
It had everything to do with Sarris: He finally received the diploma and the fanfare he’d missed all those years ago. He even got the chamber choir to do an encore.
“After the choir sang, I said to them, ‘That was terrific. We don’t want y’all leaving here without a rendition of the Ramblin’ Wreck,’” Sarris said.
“And they did it, and boy the whole place went wild.”