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The genius: At age 11, he's graduating from St. Petersburg College — then it's on to astrophysics.

William Maillis, 11, poses for a portrait at his father's Greek Orthodox church in Palm Harbor. On Saturday, he's graduating with an associate degree from St. Petersburg College, and is headed to the University of South Florida. "My goal is to have my Ph.D. by the time I'm 18," he says. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Jul. 21, 2018

PALM HARBOR — Just over two years ago, William Maillis stepped onto a bright red chair behind a lectern, tweaked the angle of his microphone and recited a Bible verse in Greek before deconstructing a quote from French philosopher René Descartes.

That's how he began his graduation speech at Penn-Trafford High School in Pittsburgh.

He was 9.

On Saturday, the 11-year-old wunderkind — declared a genius at 5 — will graduate from St. Petersburg College with an associate in arts degree. The ceremony is at 10 a.m., and he's excited.

"Just the fact that I'm going to get my associate degree and go back to USF," he said Friday afternoon, sitting in a metal chair at the makeshift home of Saints Raphael, Nicholas & Irene Hellenic Orthodox Church, where his father is the presiding priest.

William had spent this past fall studying at the University of South Florida — taking two courses — before he went back to SPC's Tarpon Springs campus this semester for three more. He and his parents came to the Tampa Bay area last year, when his father, the Rev. Peter Maillis, was transferred to the Palm Harbor parish, where a new church is under construction. That's the same reason they moved from Columbus, Ohio, and then to Pittsburgh, as William grew up.

He grew fast. He was speaking in complete sentences by 7 months old. He learned addition and subtraction before he was 2, knew the alphabet in three languages at 3, and picked up algebra (taught to him on a car ride by his older brother) at 4.

"Turned everything into a game," his father said of the parenting process, describing how their refrigerator door had been plastered with magnet letters and numbers, which William would arrange into words or math problems.

A YouTube video posted by his father shows a 4-year-old William solving equations out loud. In another, at the same age, William explains the lack of life on Mars.

His voice sounds like any kid's, his words coming out in elongated tones. But what he's saying is far ahead of his years. He grapples the air with his hands. You can see his mind churning.

Joanne Ruthsatz, the former Ohio State University psychologist who studied William and declared him a genius, said children like him are about 1 in 10 million. The chances aren't entirely random: Ruthsatz said there's a significant link between this type of child and a family history of autism. What's also common among them is their altruism.

"Prodigies have, like, this drive to do good," she said. "They're very much tuned in to the bigger picture of humanity." She explained that many of the children she has worked with went on to start foundations or other greater-good efforts.

One of the biggest hurdles they meet is finding education that's stimulating enough for such active minds. They can often feel isolated around children their age. But as their education level rises, so does their ability to fit in among peers.

College "seems to be a better place for them," Ruthsatz said. "People are more accepting. … They have more similar interests to an 8-year-old prodigy than another 8-year-old does."

That's been true for William so far. At first, he said, other students wondered whether it was a joke.

"How old are you?" they asked him. "Are you really in college?"

Soon they discovered the boy could hold his own — and even take the lead in classes. His father recounted a conversation with a history professor who detailed how the child had outshined fellow students in a debate over the most impactful event of the 20th century.

William's pick: World War I.

Sitting with his father Friday, the boy broke down the domino effect — the Great Depression, the rise of racism in Europe, World War II, the Cold War, the formation of global governance bodies. Thinking about history, especially alternative history, is a hobby for William, one he explores through strategy-based video games.

"It's fun to theorize," he said. "Like, what if France won the Seven Years' War, or what if Germany won World War I?"

Space, though, is his biggest interest.

In August, the 5-foot-2 prodigy will start studying physics at USF, with an eye toward an astrophysics career in the — likely near — future.

"My goal is to have my Ph.D. by the time I'm 18," he said.

And he has a plan for putting it to use.

"I want to prove that God does exist through science," William said, his robed father looking on. "So that the world can know."

William dove into his theory that atheism and some sects of science rely just as much on faith as religion does. And to him, it's more probable that a higher power created the universe than a random event.

"Science and religion are no different," he said. "Science is a tool for explaining the world. Science doesn't disprove God."

In his mind, too many people believe the opposite.

Apart from some early social snags, the only issue William and his family have had with his college career is money. They explained that because of William's age, he can't qualify for the federal student financial aid program. That's why he took only two courses at USF before returning to the community college.

"You would think, a kid like this, they would be throwing money at him," said Peter Maillis, who soon will be making a 45-minute commute to take his son, who hopes to work for NASA, to school.

In the meantime, with summer break here, William plans to keep being a kid.

At the church Friday, he constantly leaned back in his chair, despite his father's warnings. Then he tipped it too far and came down with clang, sprawled out on the floor with a smirk on his face. Peter looked at his son.

"Still 11."

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