"An education from St. Ambrose University is unique and beautiful, and it would be a shame if every student wasn't afforded the opportunity to attend such a fine institution. A Catholic, liberal arts institution like St. Ambrose has the power to transform lives."
That deeply felt conviction led Kathy Papageorgiou '93 and her husband Dimitri, the owner of a wine and beer distributorship in the Quad Cities, to come together with St. Ambrose nearly 13 years ago to begin one of the most enduring and successful fundraising projects in university history.
The St. Ambrose Wine Festival has raised more than $600,000 for student scholarships over the years. That is the event's true purpose, and is a mission borne of a decades-old passion for education first instilled in Kathy's family by her immigrant grandfather.
"My grandfather came to the United States from Italy totally illiterate. And perhaps because of that, from a very early age, my parents gave us a love for learning," she recalled. "My mom always said, ‘Your brain isn't there to keep your ears apart.' It is meant for learning and sharing-of yourself, your time and talents-with others."
Learning is a theme that has been constant throughout Kathy's life. After graduating with a degree in education from Truman State University, she went on to earn a graduate degree in English at Western Illinois University. As a grade school and high school teacher, she dreamed of teaching at the collegiate level-and did so at St. Ambrose in the 1990s. Not only was she a mother of three girls, she was an adjunct teacher in writing composition and a student in the Theology Department.
"I know what it is like to work full time and go to college. That was the reality of the time in which I grew up," she said. "I recognize that my kids are fortunate, but for most students today, attaining higher education is a real struggle. If we can help make that easier, then we must do it."
That's exactly what she told her husband after he was visited in 2001 by Edward Littig, PhD, then vice president for advancement at St. Ambrose. Littig called Dimitri one morning and said, "I have an idea." Days later, the two were envisioning how they could bring a premier event to the university that would pair fine wines and cheeses with Ambrosians from across the region to raise funds for student scholarships.
Today the Wine Festival offers more than 150 wines, gourmet foods from local restaurants, and a number of silent auction items. It has also expanded to three signature events, including Wine at the Warehouse in March and a Wine Festival Preview Dinner in April in addition to the Wine Tasting Festival in May.
The events are led by a committee of volunteers from across the region, who begin planning nearly a year in advance.
"Dimitri is at every meeting," said Steve Finn, general manager at Sodexo, the food service provider at St. Ambrose. "He's the one picking the wines, putting together the tables and vintners, and sharing his vast knowledge-and good palette-with anyone and everyone he meets.
"Kathy and Dimitri are just people that you'd like to know-people who make you feel better simply because you are around them, whether you drink wine or not," Finn added.
"But Dimitri sure has made wine drinkers-educated wine drinkers, actually-out of a lot of us too."
For the Papageorgiuos, educating wine aficionados is only a festival bonus.
"Why do we really do it?" Dimitri posed humbly, followed by a lengthy pause. "It is simple-and has nothing to do with wine. If it helps somebody-even one person-it is worth doing. Getting students to college, it was our initial motivation. And it still is. If I can contribute something that I know how to do, then I will do it."