Review: Ignatius Memoir Is an Inspiring American Story

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The dust jacket for Paul Ignatius’ memoir could not be more apt — it is a montage that displays the American flag as a screen across a family photo of Ignatius’ Armenian immigrant family that pictures his great grandmother, his grandfather and grandmother, his father and an image of himself as a small boy. The photo was taken in 1929.

Ignatius, who served in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, becoming secretary of the navy in 1967, has written an autobiographical account of a thriving Armenian family, planted on American soil.

Although Ignatius enjoyed a distinguished public career which began in 1961 when he was appointed assistant secretary of the army during the Kennedy administration, a great portion of the book is devoted to memories and anecdotes of Armenian family life, lived mainly in Glendale, Calif.

This book, an expanded version of what Ignatius published in 2000, chronicles Ignatius’ family history for his children and grandchildren and also the broader Armenian community. As he says in his introduction, “I want my kids and their kids to know more about the Armenians, even though their connection to the ancient land and people is not as intense as mine. My heritage is 100 percent Armenian. For my children, the percentage is half this, and for their children it is only 25 percent… Perhaps these children and their children will feel as I do, that their relationship to a people who have suffered greatly throughout their long history will give them a better understanding of the world around them.”

Ignatius’ maternal grandparents came to the United States in 1906, and his grandfather built a house in a small village called Tropico, eventually incorporated into the town of Glendale. Later, his father also built a house in Glendale and Ignatius relates happy memories of a beautiful apricot orchard in the garden and the sumptuous Armenian meals his father would prepare for guests. It was a more innocent time and Ignatius and his brother and friends enjoyed simple pass times, roller skating or playing roller skate hockey on the cement driveway.

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In the late 1920s and early 1930s, life for young children was peaceful and governed by the rhythms of family life. There was virtually no street violence and the distractions of television and the computer world didn’t exist.

Ignatius sums up a homey routine. “We would walk to the excellent schools nearby, carrying our lunch boxes and return home for games before dinner, then do homework, listen to the radio and talk with our parents before going to bed. We were a close family in a warm household and I learned the values there that shaped my life.”

Prior to coming to the United States, Ignatius maternal grandfather, escaping what would be the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey by Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1895-96, moved to Manchester, England in 1892 and became a founder of the Manchester chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). He started a soap factory, which supported the family, and as a young man, Ignatius worked there for a summer.

Ignatius’ father, born in Harput, had studied English at Euphrates College, but when he came to the US, he continued his studies at Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, NY and later moved to West Virginia, where he worked for a glass manufacturing company. On a business trip to Southern California, he met Ignatius’ mother, a talented pianist, and founded a successful rug company that became the basis for the family’s livelihood.

Ignatius attended several public schools, most notably Hoover High School, and, showing early signs of leadership, he was elected class president and president of the student body, wrote for the school newspaper, acted in plays and played varsity tennis. His parents were determined that he would become a good American and thus he never learned Armenian and although he was baptized in an Armenian church, he did not attend Sunday School.

The placid routine of home life was enlivened by visits from the writer, William Saroyan, and his uncle, Aram, who was a lawyer. The family also had some Hollywood connections and Ignatius, through his father’s relationships, landed a job as a messenger boy on the Warner Bros. studio lot. He rubbed shoulders with actors such as Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney and even Ronald Reagan. He even played a few bit parts, but deep down knew that the movie world was not for him, that he was interested in a career in public service.

Eventually, Ignatius enrolled in the University of Southern California (USC). There he worked hard both at his studies and a series of jobs as janitor, usher at a football stadium and movie theater and as a sorter at the Glendale post office. However, he began to read the New York Times and become interested in world affairs. After reading an article by Dean Acheson, Ignatius became focused on the rewards of government service. Ignatius actually dropped out of college twice, once to write and produce plays and once to become a locomotive fireman in Arizona. However, as he worked on the railroad he continued a program of independent study at USC. When a recruiter from Harvard Business School visited USC, Ignatius applied to a program that connected the MBA degree with service either in the army or navy. Having been accepted, in 1942, Ignatius became an ordinance officer and eventually served on the aircraft carrier, the Manila Bay. He saw active service in the Pacific and this service set the stage for his later government appointments, first as assistant secretary of the army, then as under secretary of the army, assistant secretary of defense and finally as secretary of the navy during the Vietnam War.

One of the additions to the present publication is a spirited defense of his books, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was often dubbed the architect of the Vietnam War.

The last chapters of the book are devoted to his account of an emotional visit to Armenia, speculation over recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey, his belief that future generations of Armenians will not forget the Genocide and his efforts to establish a chair of Armenian Studies at USC.

This account is testimony to the reality that the American dream can come true. And it is testimony to the role that hard work and the embrace of family and family values can play in making that dream come true.

More information about the book can be obtained by contacting the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) at hq@naasr.org or by writing to NAASR, 395 Concord Ave. Belmont, MA 02478.

 

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