About 14 years ago, Drexel University president Constantine Papadakis brought his family along on a business trip to meet with the Taiwanese minister of education. As it turned out, the Dalai Lama was staying in his hotel, and Papadakis’s daughter, Maria, happened to be writing a report for her sixthgrade class about Buddhism. Her father was an influential man, beloved and respected in Philadelphia and beyond, but setting up a meeting with the Dalai Lama was beyond even his reach. Undaunted, Maria penned a letter to the holy man and asked the hotel concierge to deliver it. Days later, Maria and her dad spent two hours in a luxurious suite filled with freshcut flowers—and security guards—while one of the most influential spiritual leaders in the world played host to his new young American friend.
Maria Papadakis laughs today at her precocious determination (and, yes, she got an A on that paper). “I have never been scared,” says the 26-year-old after a sip of Pinot Grigio at XIX, high atop The Bellevue, her long blonde hair twirling down across her shoulders. “It is always worth trying. There is no obstacle too big to overcome.” For this indefatigable optimism, Papadakis credits her father, who died from complications of lung cancer in 2009 at the age of 63. “We thought he had more time than he did,” she says. “I think if my family had known more about lung cancer, how to detect it, maybe my father might still be around.”
Even when discussing her father’s death, Papadakis never slips into melancholy. Instead, she is quick to focus on the silver lining: the foundation she is working to create with her mother, Eliana, to raise money for lung cancer research in her father’s name. She is also planning to start an organization to provide information and support to families affected by the disease—the only cancer, she notes, that doesn’t have its own recognized tribute color.
If all of that sounds like an overwhelming challenge for one young woman to tackle, it’s likely you have never met Papadakis. As she finishes her studies for a master’s of business administration at Drexel, she interns at The 10! Show and helps out in the news department at NBC-10, and also sits on a number of young friends boards, including those of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Academy of Music, the local chapter of the American Heart Association and the Philadelphia Zoo, whose fundraising gala in November is an annual highlight on the city’s social calendar. With her degree studies complete this fall ( just in time for the dedication of the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building), she hopes to find work in local news, combining two passions she shared with her father—telling stories and helping people.
As busy as she is, Papadakis has little time for the Rittenhouse cocktail circuit or lazy vacations on a beach. In her family, vacations meant bringing school supplies to children in Nepal or saving endangered turtles in Costa Rica. Still dressed in her news-anchor blazer, she tugs at the photo of her father that she carries with her everywhere. “I have big shoes to fill,” she says with a smile.