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Speechwriter draws on storytelling and scholarship to craft remarks and Congressional testimony for Janet Napolitano
Story by Mara McGinnis, BA ’97; photos by Nicholas McIntosh
The first person in his immediate family to attend college, Gregory Michaelidis, since 2009 the director of speechwriting for Secretary Janet Napolitano at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), had no idea when he started his studies where his career path would take him.
He was first attracted to UB for its “breadth, affordability and reputation” and continued on to complete a graduate program (both degrees are in history) and then a doctorate at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he focused on Macedonian migration to North America. His father was a refugee from Macedonia during World War II and ended up in the Buffalo area, where Michaelidis grew up.
“I have a theory that people gravitate toward fields that help explain the world to them, and 20th-century history did that for me,” he says, adding that he would leave UB Professor Michael Frisch’s class inspired and intrigued.
As for college life outside the classroom, his soccer aspirations ended when he broke his ankle the first week of his freshman year, but his writing career began. He found a home in The Spectrum offices in the basement of Baldy Hall, where he and a group of music-fan friends worked as rock critics reviewing shows for The Prodigal Sun, the paper’s edgy entertainment weekly. “I’m still a big punk rock fan,” says Michaelidis, who has since expanded his musical interests. “I’ve been listening to some remarkable Balkan brass bands playing a fast mix of Slavic, Turkish and Gypsy (Roma) music.”
Despite his academic credentials, he hesitates to use the term “expert” when discussing his professional life. “I think of myself as more of a historically informed storyteller,” says Michaelidis, noting that his areas of scholarly interest include international migration, national security and the impact of diasporas. Previously, he held positions at the Brookings Institution, the Center for Global Development, and the Hatcher Group—all in the DC area—and at UB, where he was director of research and strategic analysis for former President John B. Simpson.
His job at the Department of Homeland Security, where he oversees two other writers within a public affairs staff of about 35 (in total, DHS has approximately 240,000 people) involves a “steady stream of speeches and Congressional testimony” but also a great deal of coordination on response to tragic incidents, such as the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn. Another difficult assignment, he recalls, was preparing remarks for Napolitano to deliver at a memorial for a U.S. Coast Guard officer killed while investigating drug trafficking off the coast of Catalina Island.
A highlight moment for Michaelidis in his current role followed the delivery of a speech he prepared for Napolitano to give to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2009. Afterward, he met Ted Sorensen, the late, legendary speechwriter and adviser to JFK. “He said to me, ‘Nice to meet you. It was a very nice speech.’ That was quite a compliment coming from him.”
Michaelidis notes that the portrayal of DHS in the news media can seem unfair at times and that much of the department’s work goes unseen by the public. “Generally our successes mean that something bad doesn’t happen or that its effects are mitigated. The people who work for DHS are remarkably talented, and often put themselves in harm’s way to help keep the country and our communities secure.”
Wife, Tamara Michaelidis, BA ’94, a psychologist (the two met at UB in 1991); and two daughters, Tessa and Raina
Notable personal accomplishment
Completing the Ironman Arizona triathlon in 2008
Favorite clubs during UB days:
Old Pink, Anacone’s and The Continental
Key to productive writing environment
A clean office and plenty of lamps
Entrée into Obama administration
Signing up in 2007 as a campaign volunteer expert to help write briefing papers on foreign policy issues
2012 election-night activity
Watching returns at home on four websites/three television channels (“I’m a bit of a news and information junkie.”)
Writer he admires
The late Christopher Hitchens (“I miss his fearlessness.”)
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