Nancy Kolligian and Raffi Yeghiayan (photo Jirair Hovsepian)

NAASR Gala Celebrates New Building and Its Mission

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The atmosphere was giddy at the 65th anniversary gala of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) at the Royal Sonesta Boston hotel’s Grand Ballroom. Almost five hundred guests from Boston, many other parts of the US, and beyond were celebrating the completion of NAASR’s new state-of-the-art headquarters in Belmont and looking forward to what will come next.

David Ignatius (photo Jirair Hovsepian)

The guests, in addition to prominent philanthropists, intellectuals and longtime supporters of NAASR, included diplomats such as Armenia’s Ambassador to the US Varuzhan Nersesyan and Armenia’s UN Ambassador Mher Margaryan. Befitting the educational and cultural nature of NAASR, there was present an impressive roster of current university presidents, such as Joseph Aoun of Northeastern University, Lawrence Bacow of Harvard University, and Mary Papazian of San Jose State University, and past presidents Dr. Aram Chobanian of Boston University, Bruce Boghosian of the American University of Armenia, and Vartan Gregorian of Brown University.

David Ignatius, columnist of the Washington Post and a novelist, served as master of ceremonies and introduced himself in the context of the evening as primarily a brother and a son. A proud brother of Sarah Ignatius, NAASR executive director, he is the son of former US Navy Secretary Paul Ignatius, who was in the audience and would turn 99-years old the following week. David Ignatius noted in connection to the new NAASR headquarters, “Constructing a building is a gift from the past and present to the future.”

A series of brief videos were screened at different points in the program featuring Dr. Lisa Gulesserian, lecturer on Armenian language and culture at Harvard University, Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, at Columbia University, and Dr. Laure Astourian, assistant professor of French at Bentley University, all younger scholars speaking in appreciation of NAASR’s support of scholarship and Armenian culture.

Vartan Gregorian (photo Ken Martin)

NAASR Gives Thanks

Yervant Chekijian, chairman of NAASR’s board of directors since 2016 and chair of the fundraising for the new building, expressed his gratitude to the donors, especially primary patrons Edward and Pamela Avedisian, who humbly named the building not after themselves but after Vartan Gregorian. Chekijian thanked the gala committee led by Sarah and Piligian, the NAASR board of directors, and all those involved in the project. Chekijian revealed that 6.5 million dollars has been raised for the building, with only 700,000 dollars more needed to cover its total cost.

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He recalled the first NAASR chairman and founder, Manoog Young, who worked tirelessly for decades, and his successors Nancy Kolligian and Raffi Yeghiayan. Chekijian invited his two predecessors to come up to the stage to each receive the NAASR Leadership Award.

Chekijian reminisced about his connection with NAASR. He was a teenager at the banquet where NAASR announced the first chair in Armenian studies at Harvard University in 1959. He said he was even prouder of the new generation of Armenians, many of whom were in the audience that night. After ticking off all of the technological advantages of the new NAASR building, he said the building is only a platform for people to come together and continue NAASR’s mission, to study collaborate write and explore the Armenian heritage, in a new era. “I know the future looks bright. I know we are guaranteeing that the future is secure,” he confidently said.

Yervant Chekijian (photo Ken Martin)

The Transformative Power of Education – And Music!

Chekijian then called on Sarah Ignatius to address the audience. She said that she had meant to retire but instead found a much better calling as NAASR’s executive director. She reported that NAASR ran an essay contest for undergraduates on the transformative power of education. That is the principle at the core of NAASR’s mission, she said, and of Vartan Gregorian’s life. The students wrote about professors or teachers who had a meaningful impact on their lives. There were two first-place winners, who had to fly in specially to speak at the banquet: Lillian Avedian, a University of California Berkeley senior who at present is studying in Santiago, Chile, and Gurgen Tadevosyan, a senior at New York University (NYU) who flew in from Abu Dhabi.

Avedian praised her professor, Myrna Douzjian, and said that in her hands, Armenian literature is young, dynamic, free and ultimately, personal. Avedian said she grew up feeling stifled by Armenian culture, uncomfortable as a woman due to various constraints. She thought there was something inherently wrong with herself, and left the Armenian community.

Lillian Avedian (photo Jirair Hovsepian)

Yet she felt something missing in her life, so she took a chance on the Armenian language class offered by Douzjian. Douzjian showed that feminism was not incompatible with Armenian culture, and allowed Avedian to engage with radical, daring Armenian poets and feel that she could embody their power. Now Avedian said, she writes constantly in Armenian periodicals and asserts her own voice, while embracing her heritage fully, thanks to the “role model of courage, intellect and power” provided by Douzjian.

Gurgen Tadevosyan, originally from Yerevan, spoke in a combination of awe and admiration of his professor, Nancy Rosenblum, at NYU, who is often called a superstar of political theory. He realized in her class that he wanted to teach politics in Armenia, giving his students tools to explain the values of freedom, introduce them to American ways of thinking about politics, why I should love freedom, why I should fight for it. Rosenblum helped Tadevosyan realize he can use his identity to connect Armenians to western political thought.

Gurgen Tadevosyan (photo Jirair Hovsepian)

Between the talks, opera singer Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano, gave a wonderful performance of works by Gomidas and Sayat Nova which contributed to the uplifting and celebratory atmosphere of the evening. Bayrakdarian was accompanied by the Borromeo String Quartet (Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Kristopher Tong, violin; Mai Motobuchi, viola; and Yeesun Kim, cello, http://www.borromeoquartet.org/), which is in residence at the New England Conservatory.

Isabel Bayrakdarian (photo Ken Martin)

Philanthropists and Educators

Ignatius introduced clarinetist and investor Edward Avedisian, who laid the foundations, quite literally, of the NAASR building as a result of his generous philanthropy, and gave him as a memento a framed picture of the building. Avedisian said that in the building, “I see a nucleus of much more to come.”

Avedisian had insisted that the building be named after Vartan Gregorian, and now had the opportunity to show the assembled audience what Gregorian did to inspire this. Avedisian began by pointing out the roles played by the two most important women in Gregorian’s life. Grandmother Voski taught Gregorian life lessons: most importantly, that one’s integrity is not for sale. For example, while president at Brown University, Gregorian was offered the presidency of Columbia University. Though he wanted to take it, he had to refuse in order to keep the promise he made to raise the former’s endowment to over one billion dollars, which he went on to accomplish. His word was always his bond, Avedisian said.

Edward Avedisian (photo Ken Martin)

Gregorian’s wife, Clare Russell, challenged him to accomplish more in life even after every great achievement, and consequently, over the many decades of their marriage, shared in all his many successes. From an old Yankee family, she became an ABC (Armenian By Choice), learning to speak, read and write Armenian.

Beyond their influence, Avedisian said, there was also that of the two lions at the entrance of the New York Public Library in Manhattan (Gregorian served as its president for eight years), named Passion and Fortitude.

Avedisan related an interesting anecdote about Gregorian, who kept the honor of the Armenians high on various occasions. Franz Werfel, who did so much for the Armenian cause by writing the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, was not really recognized for these efforts by the Armenians. Gregorian took it upon himself to correct that, by having Werfel’s body exhumed from its grave in Los Angeles and reburied in Vienna alongside many other Austrian luminaries.

An additional twist to the story is that Werfel was a non-practicing Jew who embraced Catholicism without formally converting, so special arrangements had to be made for prayers. The Armenian archbishop in Vienna agreed to do it, but needed a deacon. As it happened, Gregorian learned by heart the entire liturgy as a child, so he ended up carrying out the deacon’s role.

The cofounding of the Aurora Prize as an act of gratitude symbolically to those who saved Armenian lives during the Genocide sprang no doubt from the same wellspring as the Werfel story.

Gregorian took the stage and responded by noting that Avedisian, “a stubborn philanthropist,” did not mention how he was a great challenge to Gregorian. The latter rejected all attempts at naming the NAASR building after himself, but Avedisian would not give up. Eventually Gregorian’s staff tipped the balance, calling Gregorian selfish to deny the donor his wish.

Vartan Gregorian (photo Ken Martin)

Gregorian agreed, but with one condition, that Avedisian’s name would appear on the building. “Guess what!” Gregorian exclaimed. “His name does not appear on the building…at least not yet.”

Gregorian thanked all those associated with NAASR for the honor, and confessed that in the beginning, he did not believe the Armenians could create such an organization. He congratulated Manoog Young, posthumously, for his vision and accomplishments.

Gregorian extolled the values of Armenian culture, which even celebrates two saints for their role in the creation of the Armenian alphabet. He said, “Being Armenian means that you are original.”

He spoke of regional, religious and political divisions among Armenians, but concluded that when the Ottoman Turks tried to annihilate the Armenians, they did not see them as Protestant, Catholic or Apostolic Armenians. Instead, he said, “Today we have a nation, independent Armenia, and we have to get used to it. For the first time — I have lived long enough now to say this, I have seen unity among Armenians which I have never seen.” NAASR with its new building, he said, is a manifestation of the unity of Armenian efforts.

Gregorian recently visited Armenia, and said he was very heartened. He saw that the Armenian youth were eager to learn (among other places, he visited the Avedisian School, where all expenses are paid for students in one of the poorest places in Armenia). He saw that Carolyn Mugar has planted 6 million trees in Armenia over 25 years through the Armenian Tree Project. He saw his partners Ruben Vardanyan and his wife Veronika and Noubar and Anna Afeyan, who “have provided an infrastructure for Armenia’s reconstruction.” They have helped, he said, to gather forces to make Armenia a center for tourism, banking, industry and education.

Sarah Ignatius (photo Ken Martin)

He said, “My hope is that as we do the Aurora Prize, another thing which Ruben and Noubar started and I joined, we recognize that the time has come for us as Armenians in America to pay back what America did for us.” Americans of all faiths contributed to one of the largest humanitarian aid commitments, of over 100 million dollars, in the World War I period and its aftermath. Americans also helped Armenians stranded in the wake of World War II during the beginnings of the Cold War.

Now he said, it is time for Armenians to invest in those who are not doing well around the world, and that is what the Aurora Prize does. In this way, he said, Armenians would act as leaders and not as followers. He said, “We were there when nobody spoke. Now, we speak when nobody speaks.” He asked that Armenians support the Ararat Challenge fundraiser (http://100lives.isebox.net/auroraprize2018/ararat-challenge-the-second-chance-our-world-deserves#restoftext).

Gregorian concluded, “It gives great pride to me to be associated with NAASR’s building and NAASR’s mission because having a library means we are here to stay. We are here to contribute as equals. We are not here as recipients. We are also contributors. … God bless all the heroes of Armenia who have fought for this…God bless all of you and God bless Armenia.”

 

 

 

 

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