March 23, 2014

Charlotte’s Gus Mayopoulos leads Harvard’s student council

This is the story of how a funny thing actually did happen on the way to the student forum.

This is the story of how a funny thing actually did happen on the way to the student forum.

It started last fall, when Charlotte Latin School graduate Gus Mayopoulos got elected president of the Undergraduate Council, sort of like the student council, at Harvard University.

And while that may not sound all that funny – Mayopoulos, 21, the son of Amy Lefkof and Fannie Mae President Tim Mayopoulos, is the kind of well-educated young person who could be expected to hit a high bar for achievement. Still, how it happened is, actually, pretty funny.

First, it wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Mayopoulos ran as vice president on a two-man ticket with his roommate, Sam Clark. Their platform was a joke: A promise to get two-ply toilet paper in the dorms and more tomato basil ravioli soup in the campus dining halls.

“We were irreverent and we were making it distinctly not serious,” admits Mayopoulos, a junior who was home in Charlotte last week on spring break.

Goofing on serious things, he says, is Harvard tradition. After all, the Cambridge, Mass., school is the home of the Harvard Lampoon and Hasty Pudding Theatricals. Mayopoulos writes for the campus publication Satire V (it spells “veritas” backward) and performs with a comedy troupe, On Thin Ice.

Clark and Mayopoulos, however, ran a well-organized joke campaign, even joining in a public debate.

Then the funny thing started to happen: Their campaign attracted support. It began to look like they might, improbably, win. So they talked it over and decided that if elected, they wouldn’t serve.

“ ‘We started it as a joke and we should end it as a joke,’ ” Mayopoulos says they agreed.

So what happened? They got elected. Clark stepped down. And Gus … well, Gus didn’t.

He went away on Thanksgiving break, thought it over, and decided he did want to serve.

“I had a responsibility,” he says. “The best way to follow up is to end the joke and start a new one.”

With Clark’s support, Mayopoulos became president, with Sietse Goffard, one of their opponents, tapped as vice president.

Now, here’s the really funny thing: Mayopoulos is turning out to be good at leading the Undergraduate Council, according to a story in The Harvard Crimson. By taking a joke seriously, the council is getting better standing with the students.

Mayopoulos has a gentle, approachable manner and what the campus newspaper calls “a budding professionalism.”

At Charlotte Latin School, Mayopoulos’ favorite teacher, Lawrence Wall, says he isn’t surprised. “Gus is a completely individual thinker,” he says. “He has that incredible gift in human leadership of softening the blow of truth through humor.”

He has seen Mayopoulos use humor before, although not with such good results. In high school, Mayopoulos ran for student council, but gave his campaign speech using a sock puppet.

It bombed, and he lost. But he truly did get the last laugh: When he applied to Harvard, that’s what he wrote about in his essay.

Mayopoulos has a history of taking sharp turns in his life, Wall points out. After getting accepted at Harvard, he took a gap year after graduation. He spent half of it working in a medical clinic in Costa Rica and half of it in Israel, studying a form of martial arts called Krav Maga, the fighting system of the Israeli Defense Forces.

So what comes next? Mayopoulos isn’t sure. He’s majoring in history and is on track to graduate in 2015. But he admits he’s changed career paths “at least six times.”

“I don’t see politics in my future unless the policies are soup-based,” he says. “But I am good at finding things I care about and getting loud about them.”

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