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Aso Tavitian: A Life Full of Grace and Giving

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By Florence Avakian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — Meeting with philanthropist Aso O. Tavitian for first time is a surprise. A reserved, thoughtful and polite man who has been a pioneer in the technology world, and a quiet generous benefactor to Armenian causes, he blossoms when he describes the many steps along his life’s journey, and talks about his vast art collection which adorns his spacious and elegantly furnished townhouse off Fifth Avenue.

His professional life has been a veritable Who’s Who in the computer software area where he was co-founder and the CEO from 1975 to 2008 of Syncsort Inc. (from Synchronized Sorting). Since 2008 he has devoted his life to helping his fellow men in Armenia, Artsakh, and America with generous contributions to several educational, religious, artistic institutions and endeavors.

Aso (Assadour) Ohanes Tavitian was born in Bulgaria to parents who were survivors of the 1915 Genocide in Turkey. His well-to-do family had lost not only all its material possessions, but the lives of loved ones as well. After escaping to Bulgaria, they had rebuilt their fortunes, to only lose their material possessions once again to the Communists when the Communists took over Bulgaria at the end of the Second World War. Thus, Tavitian grew up in an environment where the loss of one’s material possessions was not viewed as “the end of the world.” “It was understood,” he says, that “you just get back on your backside and make it back again. Implicit was that anything is possible.” When he reflects back on his professional career as an entrepreneur and businessman, he feels that this was an important component of the reasons for his success. “My company had one of the highest profit margins in the software industry,” he says, “but I was never after the money, per se. When the money is not the primary objective, one’s risk assessments and priorities take on different considerations. What turned me on was the building of an organization and creating an environment where intelligent people liked to work and create the best products that beat the competition decisively. And I think that this perspective was a direct consequence of the environment that I grew up in.”

 

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The “anything is possible” attitude has been helpful in many aspects in his life. Having moved from Bulgaria to Beirut, Lebanon, at the age of 19, he learned English in the span of three months in order to be accepted to college with a full scholarship. However, Tavitian still needed to somehow cover his living expenses. In the last minute, as he was considering the possibility of not being able to benefit from the scholarship, the school awarded him living expenses, as well. Eighteen months later, when he was leaving Beirut for the United States, he discovered by accident that his living expenses had been funded anonymously by his high school English teacher, Antoan Kehayian, referred to by everyone as “Sir.”

With fondness Tavitian recalls his first encounter with “Sir,” who came into his life through a distant relative in Athens, Greece. This relative was an academic and asked Sir to teach English to the young Aso. “I remember my first encounter with Sir very well,” Aso says, “He was a very tall, slim man, dressed in a waistcoat and a bow tie, very much looking like a British academic. He was British educated. For a 19-year-old, he was almost intimidating,” he said. “Sir was Armenian, but a Catholic and claimed that he was more Catholic than the Pope. He had a tremendous disdain for the Communists and felt that they destroyed the motivation and drive of people. After carefully looking me over and taking into account that I was raised in Communist Bulgaria, he said that he would give me three hours per week, because he had promised his friend from Athens that he would teach me, but warned me not to raise my hopes. “I will examine your progress in six weeks and then will decide if it is worth continuing” he said. I worked very hard for six weeks, he was pleased, and we continued for another six weeks. In those twelve weeks, he had taught me enough to be accepted in college in September of 1959.”

Sir’s generosity left a significant impact on Tavitian. “Sir was not a rich man. He had the earnings of a high school teacher and did not even want me to know that he was funding my living expenses. That is the ultimate in giving.” Years later when he became successful, Aso created the Tavitian Foundation in 1985, which he funds himself, as a vehicle for providing financial assistance to talented young Armenians who do not have the resources to pursue a college education. “This was my way of paying back for the assistance I had received,” he says. “I tell the story of Sir,” he continues, “to every young person I have helped and stress that the only thing I expect in return is that someday, when they can afford it, they help somebody else. Sir was the symbolic element which inspired me later on in life to help my fellow men,” he states reflectively, adding that his caring about people primarily came from his parents.

 

Columbia University

Tavitian arrived in the United States in June of 1961, well past the time for acceptance decisions at colleges for that fall. But once again, in the spirit of “anything is possible,” he applied late and was accepted at Columbia University with a full scholarship. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Nuclear engineering in 1964, followed by a master’s degree, again in nuclear engineering, in 1966. He then enrolled in the Doctoral program at Columbia. “I thought I wanted to be in academia and be a scientist,” he said.

He finished the required course and experimental work for his Doctoral studies by 1969, but while writing his thesis he changed his mind about being a scientist, and abandoned the doctoral program and became a participant in what was one of the first independent software companies. It was the late 60s and an innovative period in the technology world was just beginning to blossom. After becoming the CEO of Syncsort in 1975 he led the company through 32 years of steady growth and consistent record of profitability with “some of the highest profit margins in the industry.” Syncsort’s first product was a venture in an area where IBM had 100-percent market share. Within five years Syncsort had garnered 55 percent of that market pushing IBM into a #2 position. In 2008, he sold a substantial portion of his 85 percent holding in the company to a conglomeration of, Insight, a private equity firm, Goldman Sacks, and a couple of other small investors. He retained about 15 percent of Syncsort and continued to be involved with a seat on the Board. “Syncsort was never just economics for me,” he says. In 2013, he sold his remaining 15 percent when the company recapitalized for a second time.

 

Tragedies

During the time from the 70s through the beginning of the 2000s, both happiness and tragedy marred his life. He met his future wife, Arlene, a high school and college teacher in English, in the New York City subway and was happily married for 30 years. But 2002 became the “darkest, most disrupting” period in his life. In the span of six months in 2002, he lost his wife, his mother and a good college friend who had worked for him for more than 25 years.

While Tavitian continues to be in touch with the Syncsort group and follows their success, he now spends most of his time concentrating on the works of the Tavitian Foundation, which he continues to fund. “Life must go on,” Tavitian said and explains how these tragedies reinvigorated his work through the Tavitian Foundation.

The principal focus of the Tavitian Foundation is the education of talented individuals of Armenian ethnic origin. However, the initial approach of providing financial assistance to talented individuals, has evolved into what Aso calls “the group programs.” Each year one or two groups of fifteen well educated individuals (many with PhDs) who are midlevel employees at various Ministries or other Governmental Institutions of Armenia and Artsakh are carefully selected and brought over to the US for a very specialized training program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “When I sit down with them, at the end of each program and ask “What did you learn?,” Aso reflects, “it is very satisfying that almost none of the participants talk about a particular subject matter. “A new way of thinking” or “analyzing problems differently” or “not accepting the truth as it is being taught or presented” are the kind of responses that I get,” Aso concludes. This is all part of his drive to strengthen the governance of Armenia by bringing a western perspective to decision making, while staying scrupulously away from getting involved in any aspects of Armenian politics.

This program was initially launched with the cooperation of the then Dean of Fletcher, General Jack Galvin, a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. It has expanded and flourished with the next two successive Deans at Fletcher, Steve Bosworth, a highly respected American diplomat followed by another Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis. Both of whom became good friends. The Tavitian Foundation has sponsored several trips for both of these Deans to Armenia in order to further strengthen the links between Fletcher and Armenia. “Sadly, Steve passed away two years ago,” Aso adds.

In June of this year, Tavitian handed out the coveted certificates at the most recent graduation at Fletcher of the 15 Tavitian Scholars. There are currently about 300 graduates of the various Tavitian Foundation programs currently in Armenia. Spread among different Ministries and Governmental Institutions, they refer to themselves affectionately as “The Fletcher Mafia,” “The Tavitian Mafia,” or simply “The Tavitians.”  “The Central Bank,” Aso says, “is the most effective user of this program. There are about 50 or so Tavitian Scholars employed by the Central Bank.”

Vigen Sargsyan, Armenia’s current Minister of Defense, was the first student from Armenia to receive a full scholarship from the Tavitian Foundation as well as some support from the AGBU. His wife, Lucine Galadjian, was also a recipient of a Tavitian scholarship. They both completed a two years Master’s program in International Relations at Fletcher. As one of the Fletcher graduates, Mr. Sargsyan commented in an email that the Tavitian Foundation made it possible for him to attend the school of his choice, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. After graduating from Yerevan State University and the St. Petersburg School of Public Administration, he “was very much interested in getting yet another perspective on issues of International Law and Organizations, and Security Studies,” and though he had fully funded offers from other prestigious institutions, he chose Fletcher.

“Yet, more than receiving a full scholarship from the Tavitian Foundation, I have had the privilege of getting to know Aso and benefitting from his generous attention,” commented the Minister. “I have learned from our lengthy discussions on world order, the future of Armenia, the role of philanthropy, and of course his main passion, the arts. Every day I recall the great contribution that Aso Tavitian and the Tavitian Foundation has had in my life, and the lives of hundreds of young people from Armenia.”

The constructive effect of the 300 or so Tavitian Scholars currently in Armenia on the governance of Armenia led to Aso being awarded Armenia’s Medal of Honor by the President of Armenia in October of 2017. “While I am the official recipient of the Medal,” he said, “it is a reflection of the great work that the Tavitian Scholars are doing in Armenia. I feel I have accepted the Medal on their behalf.”

 

Think Tanks

Another focus of the Tavitian Foundation reflects his interests in international relations. He is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and supports and gets involved in various programs at these organizations. In addition to participating in the various discussions that the Council of Foreign Relations holds on international relations issues, Aso is very much involved with the Military Fellows that join the Council for a one year tenure every year. The Military Fellows, one from each branch, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, and the Marine Corp. are typically of the ranks of Captain or Colonel. They are on an upward trajectory of their careers and “are on track to be our future Generals and Admirals,” he explained. “It makes one proud to be an American, when one is exposed to what these individuals do for all of us in civilian life.”

The Tavitian Foundation also focuses on the arts, another passion of his, Old Master paintings and sculptures. “My interest in the arts originally started from a decorative point of view related to the house I had bought in New York, but then I came to appreciate it and fell in love with it.” He has amassed a well-known in the art world collection of more than  120 or so Old Masters paintings, with most of them being portraits. They are split between his New York and Massachusetts houses. He often lends paintings and/or sculptures to museums for various exhibitions.

A major benefactor of the Frick Collection, located on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st streets in Manhattan, he is the vice chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees and the chair of its Acquisition Committee. While emphasizing that “the Frick is a jewel of a museum,” he stresses that “it is a house.”

“Aso’s involvement with the Frick Collection stretches back many years,” said Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection, “for more than a decade, he has been a steadfast supporter of the museum and its mission. Since 2008, when he became a trustee, he has funded activities across the institution, including numerous special exhibitions. In 2011, he served as co-chairman of our largest fundraising event, our Autumn Dinner.”

“Aso also serves as a member of many Board committees and is a discerning and knowledgeable collector, and on several occasions, he has — with his characteristic warmth and enthusiasm — opened his home to our top-level donors, and our Young Fellows in order to share his private collection,” Wardropper continued. “He has introduced many friends and colleagues to the Frick, several of whom have become active supporters. We are grateful not only for his leadership and generosity as vice chair of our Board of Trustees, but also for his passion for the institution and its programs.”

Tavitian has also been helping New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with their exhibitions that touch on Armenia. A couple of years ago, the Met had a successful exhibit on Jerusalem and Tavitian was instrumental in getting the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem to lend several historical manuscripts. In 2018, the Met will stage a monumental exhibit on Armenian Art from around the world. Dr. Helen Evans, who was the co-curator for the Armenian manuscript exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum several years ago and is the curator for the 2018 Met exhibition says “Aso is offering much appreciated advice for The Met’s exhibition Armenia that will open on Armenian Independence Day, September 21, 2018, and close in January 2019 after Armenian Christmas.” She added that “The Republic of Armenia and major Armenian institutions elsewhere, the major lenders to the exhibition, are sending works that have never been shown in America.”

He is also an avid lover of opera, attending between 10 and 15 operas each season. Verdi is his favorite composer with Puccini a close second.

With a life full of extraordinary experiences and people, especially his mother and Sir, Tavitian forged ahead to become a pioneer in his industry and has never forgotten the life changing experiences that brought him to where he is today, a reserved, generous man to those around him and causes close to his heart.  With an infectious sense of humor, he says “It is important to be able to laugh in life. I love life, like myself, and am an incurable optimist. After all the best way to get through life is to laugh.”

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