Five Beautiful Ducklings

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By Frank Nahigian

When you and I were growing up we were always pleased and proud to see, hear or read about an Armenian’s public achievement, so when the Stanford football team of 1951 with five Armenians playing key roles won the right to represent the Pacific Coast Conference in the Rose Bowl game the following New Year’s Day, I paid close attention. I was mildly disappointed they lost to Illinois by a lopsided score and felt badly for the boys but didn’t care otherwise.

A player named Hugasian had scored Stanford’s only touchdown and another named Kerkorian had kicked the extra point. The glass was 80-percent full. I’ve always wondered about who the five were and how they spent the rest of their lives, so I decided to find out.

My first call was to Norm Manoogian, captain of the team his senior year and a member of the Stanford University Hall of Fame. Manoogian was raised by his mother because his father died in an accident when Norm was 18-months-old; his mother’s entire family was killed during the massacres, and his father’s brother met a similar fate. His mom, who had been 4 during the Genocide, survived only through the kindness of a Turkish military officer who saved her by secretly absorbing her into his own family.

Manoogian eventually became a teacher and educator. I asked him what was the most important wisdom he could pass on to his children. He said, “Thinking. Thinking through every problem before you make a decision, and to believe in yourself.” Now in his retirement, Manoogian and his wife, Jone, remain active by supporting and engaging in programs implemented to improve the community environment. He said that the strongest message he got from his mom was the value of unconditional love and of being responsible for our actions. He recalled the closeness and warmth of the community when he was in college, a time when an unspoken honor system existed.

Shopkeepers extended credit for purchases by students if they didn’t have enough cash in their pockets to pay for goods they needed, and compared it to the change he saw when he returned to the same community after returning from military service, when the same shopkeepers required payment at the time of purchase. He decried the breakdown in the fundamental standard  and the honor system. When we spoke about the broken economy the country faces today, I asked him what he thought brought us to the present condition: “Greed,” which he blamed on the mindset of Washington politicians as well as the attitude in Big Business. On the other hand and closer to their hearts, Norm and Jone are gratified and proud of the fact that their two children are healthy and independent in every way.

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Then I spoke to Chuck Essegian, another of their classmates, who is also another Stanford Hall of Famer. Essegian was a linebacker on that team. When he graduated, he had the option of trying out for professional football or baseball; he decided on the latter because for one, it paid better, and also, the likelihood of injury was less in baseball. He figured that if he failed at that game, he could still attempt football, but if he got hurt playing football, it would also prevent a baseball career.  But he didn’t fail. His four seasons in the minor leagues and six in the majors included hitting two pinch-hit home runs to help the LA Dodgers beat the Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series. After his baseball career ended, Essegian went to law school and practiced for 30 years till he retired to Canyon Country, Calif.

Next I spoke to Len Kaprielian, a classmate of Manoogian’s and a defensive tackle.  At 250 pounds (his teammates nicknamed him “Two And A Half”), he was the biggest player on the team. After working for Firestone Tire and Rubber  Co. for a number of years, Kaprielian achieved a lifelong dream by buying and operating a bar and grill in San Francisco, the Jolly Friar English Pub, for 20 years, retired, and applied the teamwork skills he learned on the football field and honed during his business career, to community service. In 1991 he began volunteering for the Sausolito Arts Festival, the foremost outdoor fine arts festival in the country, and now runs part of the operation and serves on its Board of Directors. In recognition of his many contributions to the community, annual grants awarded to local non-profits by the Festival have been named the Leonard Kaprielian Grants. This project has become almost the joy of his life, an eternal second to his wife, Agnes. He has twice been named Volunteer of the Year for the city of Sausalito, has received the Spirit of Marin award; he and his wife have been honored by being named grand marshals of Sausalito’s 4th of July parade.

More recently, Len has been confined to bed as a result of an accident while visiting a long time friend in Fresno who was producing a custom car show. He’s progressed to the point where he can eat regular food, starting with madzun so Agnes (Dervishian of Philadelphia) has made half a gallon of madzun which unquestionably will have him back on his feet in no time. Chuck Essegian says of him, “He’s the kindest-hearted, sweetest man I ever met”.
All his life, the main standard by which he lived was to be fair and honest in every situation. Chuck Essegian said of Len Kaprielian, “He was the kindest-hearted, sweetest guy I ever knew.”

His father was a mailman; his mom was orphaned at 8 and came to this country at age 16. What he was taught by his parents was to respect and love his family, and the value of perseverance. He learned at home as well as through sports that one is going to lose from time to time, everyone does, but the winners are those who persevere, who get back up after they’ve been knocked down. We’re accustomed to hearing people rave about their grandchildren, how remarkably good looking and intelligent they are, and we tolerate it because we understand it, right? Essegian surprised me; he said his mom is the greatest person he ever knew in his life, and I believe him because of one of several stories he told me. In his words: “She just was so full of wisdom for someone who didn’t have a formal education, never got beyond sixth grade. I’ll tell you a funny story that I laugh at to this day. I came home one day after my fourth or fifth season in the big leagues, and had been in a World Series and had hit some home runs so I thought I knew a little bit about hitting. She only saw me play in one football game and in maybe two baseball games, during the World Series. When I came home after maybe my fifth season in the big leagues she came to me one day and said ‘Would you get a bat and come outside, I want to show you something.’ I said “What do you want to show me, Mom?” She said, “I just want to talk to you about something. You know sometimes you walk up to the plate like the pitcher’s already going to get you out before you even get there. You drag the bat behind you, and I want to show you how I want you to walk up to that plate and take your stance and swing the bat.”

“I thought, God bless you, Mom, you never give up. I never forgot that. Even when I was 50, she was giving me  advice all the time but I never forgot that. She thought that your mind and your attitude could govern what your body did. She absolutely had that understanding.” (I say, that poor, uneducated woman may have known more about the power of positive thinking than Dale Carnegie did.)

Two of the most prominent players on that team were Gary Kerkorian, the quarterback, and Harry Hugasian, the feature running back, who were Stanford 1952 grads, one year in college ahead of the other three. Local sportswriters labeled them “The Shish Kebab Twins” and they’re still referred to as such to this day. Ironically, in the mid-1940s Hugasian’s parents moved his family from Wisconsin to Pasadena  to start a new life. They opened an eatery, “The House of Shish Kebab,” and as Harry tells it, “In 1947 Los Angeles, nobody ate shish kebab, so we went broke.”

A friend, Sam Salesian, a fellow Stanford alum, found jobs for Hugasian’s parents and helped him get a football scholarship to attend his alma mater. Hugasian went into the Air Force after graduation and, when he returned from the service, played professional football for two of the most storied coaches in NFL history, the Baltimore Colts coached by Weeb Ewbank and the Chicago Bears coached by George Halas. Kerkorian was a quarterback for the Colts at that time and of course, he favored Hugasian whenever he had the opportunity to do so. For those of you who are interested, the two highest-paid players at that time were Frankie Albert and Otto Graham, who were making $25,000 per year. Hugasian was getting $6,000. After football, Hugasian went into the bowling alley business, one in Long Beach and one in LA. Eventually, he sold the alleys and went into the corrugated box business and paper pad manufacturing business for six or seven years until he retired. He now resides in a retirement home in Arcadia, where he’s very pleased with the lifestyle.

Gary Kerkorian was a three-year starter, and was named to the United Press International 1952 All-American team, and was also a Stanford Hall of Fame inductee. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1952 draft and played for them for one season before signing on with the Baltimore Colts where he was their starting quarterback for the 1954 season. He played for two more years and then left to get a law degree at Georgetown, but rejoined the Colts as a backup quarterback for their last two regular season games, including the 1958 NFL Championship game won by the Colts over the New York Giants often called “the greatest game ever played.” He practiced law until he became a Superior Court judge in Fresno in 1990 and retired in January 2000. Kerkorian and Hugasian remained such close friends after college that Hugasian was the best man at Kerkorian’s wedding and godfather to four of his six children. Hugasian said when they played together for the Colts, Kerkorian mentored him. When Kerkorian became a judge in the Fresno federal court, Hugasian called him to congratulate him and asked him, tongue in cheek, whether if he got a parking ticket, Kerkorian could fix it for him. Kerkorian’s response was, “No, that’s minor league stuff, but if you murder someone or rob a bank, now I can help you.”

As outstanding an athlete as Kerkorian was, he was an even more meritorious human being. When I asked Joyce, his widow, about his Armenian background, she said he was very proud of his ethnicity and culture. When I asked her what Kerkorian felt was his most outstanding life achievement, Joyce repeated a story told by another judge who had attended a law symposium with Gary where, in response to a question asking what he considered his greatest accomplishment in life, Gary answered, “My six children.” She said some constant messages he repeated to his kids were, “Study hard, get good grades, don’t outsmart yourself by overanalyzing problems and most important of all, do what your heart tells you to do.”

Kerkorian died of lung cancer on May 22, 2000. I wish I could have spoken to him.

(Frank Nahigian is a regular contributor to the Mirror-Spectator.)