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Fondest farewells come from volunteers

With less than two weeks remaining in the six-month stay of "Alexander the Great," those immersed in the trappings and tales of the legendary Greek general are the ones who will miss him the most when he goes.

"We are sad the exhibit will be closed in a few days," says Michael Melachrino, one of the approximately 1,300 volunteers who share their interest and knowledge with visitors to Florida International Museum.

"Alexander" opened Oct. 1 and features 500 artifacts from 45 international museums and collections. They all relate to the famous general, who lived in 300 B.C. and in his brief 32 years became one of the most successful military strategists of all time.

From a gold medallion portrait of Alexander's mother, Olympias _ "Not a good word was said about her. She was a manipulator," says Melachrino _ to the bronze helmets of the type worn by Alexander's soldiers, the exhibit reflects his unprecedented influence.

"It's been 2,000 years, and still we talk about him," Melachrino says. "He was a conqueror, but he didn't kill the conquered. He treated them like human beings."

The exhibit is Melachrino's second _ he also volunteered at "Splendors of Ancient Egypt." He works about three hours a week in the galleries, answering questions from visitors, enjoying the company of the other volunteers, and sometimes walking up behind the students who invariably are whispering and giggling over the nude statues. They immediately become silent, Melachrino says with a smile.

"I like volunteering. You feel you're doing something good for other people, and you make friends," says Melachrino, who also tutors Countryside High School students in French.

Born in Athens and retired from the travel business, Melachrino, 56, now lives in Countryside with his wife, Ria. His son, Jason, a sophomore at the University of South Florida in Tampa, recorded the Greek-language audio guide for "Alexander" and is studying medicine. His daughter, Nanette, is a Countryside High School junior.

"It's good to know your roots. That way you know your future," he says of passing on his Greek heritage to his children. Then, he says, they may choose the best from both the Greek and American cultures.

Attendance at "Alexander" has been disappointing, lagging at about one-third the number projected, museum officials say. Last month the museum received a $5.4-million cash infusion from the city to cover losses and keep the doors open for "Titanic," which arrives Nov. 15, and another exhibit, probably on ancient Peru.

The volunteers, nicknamed "penguins" because of their black-and-white attire, will have their post-exhibit party April 5.

The volunteers savor each artifact, and every show.

"These are my favorite," says Melachrino, striding through Gallery 10 to a trio of statues of Bucephalas, Alexander's horse, displayed in cases along the wall. Two are in bronze, one in marble. One of the bronzes is particularly detailed, with Alexander astride his beloved steed.

A 3-ton, 10-foot-long pebble mosaic of Alexander and his friend Hephaestion is frequently visited by volunteer Phyllis Hopha of Clearwater. "Can you believe that was in someone's house?" she asks.

She, too, is smitten.

"For most of us penguins," she says, "this is our museum."

At a glance

March 31 is the last day to visit "Alexander the Great," an exhibit of 500 artifacts from 45 museums and collections spotlighting the famous Greek general, at the Florida International Museum, 100 Second St. N, in downtown St. Petersburg. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For tickets, call 821-1448 locally, or (800) 777-9882; also may be purchased in museum lobby. Cost is $14.50 for adults; $13.25 for seniors (60 and up); and $5 for youths 5 to 16 years old.