Art teacher a moral compass

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Malibu author’s first novel pays tribute to a beloved mentor who changed his life.

By Ward Lauren / Special to The Malibu Times

When W. William Winokur was 11 years old, his parents sent him to the Horace Mann School for Boys in the Bronx, a far greater remove from the Tenafly, N.J. school system than the mere trip across the George Washington Bridge. While overcoming the daunting challenge of an entirely new academic regimen, he made an unlikely but deep and lasting connection with his aging art teacher, Ion Theodore.

The man was truly an epic figure. Teacher, painter, sculptor, scholar and early marathon runner, Theodore had been born a slave in Greece under the Ottoman Empire. He won his freedom in World War I, ran in the Panhellenic Games in 1928, carried the Olympic Torch for Greece in 1936 and aided Greek relief efforts during and after World War II and his country’s civil war. His calm and gentle nature, wisdom and insight were an inspiration to Winokur, and the bond formed between them would ultimately change the young man’s life in several ways.

It took some three decades to happen, but the changes were profound. After a career in finance on Wall Street, 45-year-old Winokur called it quits and moved to Malibu. Although he had never written a novel before, his first book, “Marathon,” was published last year; his second novel, “The Third Miracle,” is due out this fall; a film version, for which he has written the screenplay, will begin production this summer and three more books are in the planning stage.

In New York, in the midst of a thriving investment banking business, Winokur was successful but increasingly dissatisfied. The lofty motto of the Horace Mann school nagged at him: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

“I felt unfulfilled,” he said. “I wasn’t making a positive impact in life. I felt a need to really touch other people and maybe change their lives.”

He knew then that he had to make a change in his own life. He had bought a house in Latigo Canyon 20 years earlier as an investment, so at least he knew where his first step would take him.

Winokur had lost touch with his old mentor from Horace Mann and decided to look him up before moving to California. He found that Theodore was being cared for by a Mary Drineas, the daughter of old family friends. His visit to Long Island that day was the last time he would see his beloved teacher, who died soon after at the age of 93.

Drineas gave Winokur some of Theodore’s memoirs and poems, and told him what she had learned from him before he died; stories of a life that encompassed some of the most monumental historical events of a tumultuous century. Winokur knew then not only where he had to go, but what he had to do.

Winokur bought a lot in Serra Retreat. “I needed a place where I could walk to [get] coffee and the New York Times,” he said.

He moved into a construction trailer while major restoration work was done on the home in which he now lives with his wife, Maggie, and children Leonardo, Emma and Ian. A year later, in 2001, he began to write “Marathon.”

In the novel, written in the first person, Winokur assumes the persona of Drineas, giving her the fictitious name of Marianna Gardner and the role of niece to Theodore. He thus tells a bit of his own life story in that Gardner is a successful but disaffected New York power broker, although in her case in a prestigious law firm rather than an investment-banking corporation.

Winokur deftly weaves an intriguing work of fiction around many of the facts of Theodore’s life as Gardner travels to Greece with her uncle to help him search for a lost love that may or may not have been real. History comes to life as Winokur creates in his imagination journals that Theodore might well have written as he lived through history. Set largely in the locale of modern Greece, interspersed with brief, fictionalized passages relating the mythic tale of the original marathon runner to Theodore’s own struggles, “Marathon” has all the flavor and scope of a true epic.

There is a sweet soliloquy that Gardner says to herself in thought, as she attends the body of her uncle after his death in Greece, that obviously reveals the depth of Winokur’s love and respect for his former teacher, and why he felt compelled to write the story:

“Were it not for this one man-a simple Greek shepherd-I would still be wandering aimlessly the landscape of ever-diminishing life. Ion Theodore, my shepherd, had become my moral compass. Born a slave and possessed of nothing, his gift to me was more than any king could have offered.”

William Winokur will discuss and sign copies of his book, “Marathon,” Feb. 26, 3 p.m., at Diesel, Bookstore