Vartan Gregorian (photo Ken Martin)

Primate Pays Tribute to Late Dr. Vartan Gregorian at Carnegie Hall Memorial


By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — It was a memorial tribute to an Armenian individual who embodied the best in education, scholarship, compassion and philanthropy.

“What a voyage I have been on,” he once wrote.

On Wednesday, April 13, some 1,500 guests attended a three-hour memorial service at the famed Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall in New York City, to mark one year since the passing of Dr. Vartan Gregorian: a larger-than-life individual who was born in poverty in Iran, was inspired by a devoted and charismatic grandmother, and rose to the pinnacle of success in America.

His extraordinary legacy included becoming the president of three of the most prestigious institutions — the New York Public Library, Brown University, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Among numerous honors he received, Dr. Gregorian was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

At the Carnegie Hall tribute, close to three dozen speakers and a dozen performers shared their thoughts and talents. These included former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Corporation Chairman (and former New Jersey Governor) Thomas Kean, Carnegie Corporation President-Elect Professor Louise Richardson, New York Public Library President Anthony Marx, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, Aurora Co-Founder Noubar Afeyan, COAF president and founder Garo Armen, historian Robert Caro, and world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Nubar Afeyan (Filip Wolak photo)

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A powerful invocation was offered by the Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, Bishop Daniel Findikyan. He began by quoting the legendary 10-century Armenian mystic, St. Gregory of Narek, and his prayer to the Author of Life:

“You adorned me with reason. You burnished me with your breath. You enriched me with your thought. You cultivated me with wisdom. You buttressed me with intellect. You instilled in me a rational spirit. You enhanced me with a sovereign mind. You emboldened me to turn my earthly eyes to you. O Living God, glory to you.”

Calling Dr. Gregorian “a man of extraordinary gifts and exceptional achievements,” he stressed that “we are here today in this magnificent hall, because in one way or another, Dr. Gregorian provoked each one of us to rethink our happy assumptions, to reshape our comfortable categories. He shocked us by shifting our outlook in some way, and in doing so he reset our perspectives for the better.”

The Primate continued by reflecting that “perhaps it was something he taught us, something his grandmother taught him, or an old-world anecdote that suddenly turned a tangled quandary into a non-issue.”

Then turning to the two video photos of a smiling Dr. Gregorian gracing the stage, the Primate commented that “maybe it was nothing more than his mischievous grin and notoriously bushy eyebrows fixated upon you.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

“We are the beneficiaries of Vartan’s life,” the Primate stated in conclusion. “We are also the fuel that drove Vartan’s life.” He related that Gregorian learned early in life, probably from his grandmother “that we discover the meaning of our short term of existence on this earth when we are ‘emboldened to turn our earthly eyes and gifts to God and to the uplifting of others.’” He then offered consolation to the family, and expressed hope that the “seeds that Dr. Gregorian planted in each one of us, be increased.”

New York Library President Anthony Marx (Filip Wolak photo)

Leader, Scholar, Friend

During the program, speakers emphasized Vartan Gregorian’s devotion to his wife and three sons, his Armenian background, and the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide. They remarked on Gregorian’s connections to the rich Armenian culture of Tabriz, Iran; to Beirut with its people of multiple backgrounds and languages; and to prestigious institutions like the New York Public Library, Brown University, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Aurora Foundation (which he co-founded).

There was also glowing praise for his many laudable qualities.

Fr. Sahag Yemishian, representing Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, movingly called Gregorian the “quintessential global citizen. Not only did that serve him well in his long and eventful life, but more importantly it gave him a unique ability to understand others regardless of background or social condition.”

“Indeed as an Armenian, he was keenly aware of history and the need to understand it to shape the future,” Yemishian continued. “Dr. Gregorian devoted his efforts and resources to addressing the many challenges that the Armenian nation still faces — and somehow manages to overcome, against impossible odds.”

Gillinson paid tribute to Gregorian’s “embodiment of the spirit of migration, his continuing recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and Armenia’s long and heroic history.” Gillinson voiced the feelings of many by saying, “We admired and valued him for his creative spirit, vision, transformative ideas, charm, partnership, scholarship, and friendship.”

Bloomberg extolled Gregorian’s “very big presence” in promoting libraries and his “promotion of people to work together after the 9/11 disaster.” He called him a “dreamer, a doer, and an eternal optimist who achieved success and helped others to also succeed.”

Two lifelong friends of Gregorian, Varoujan Arakelian and Sahag Baghdassarian, related anecdotes of his life, and emphasized his strong Armenian roots and how his service was dedicated to the qualities of his background. They also spoke of his unending devotion to his grandmother, and how personal relations were important for him. “He loved people, knew several languages — French, English, Arabic, and of course Armenian — so he could communicate with everyone.”

Ron Margolin, a philanthropy leader at Brown University, revealed that Gregorian ushered in Brown’s “Golden Age,” increasing its faculty, raising funds, establishing new departments, and building the university as a community, not a corporation. “He brought a smile to everyone’s face, and made every student feel special. Because of his immigrant background, international students were more impacted by him.”

Marx called Gregorian, “the wisest man I know.” He recalled how the guards still speak of him. “He taught us all how to be wise and wild,” he stated to cheering by the audience.

Calling the honoree an “icon,” Walker related that “Vartan was not only the life of every party, but most of all he was a teacher’s teacher, a scholar’s scholar, a mentor’s mentor. His ultimate passion was for books and reading, even though as a youngster his family could not afford books. Vartan always said, ‘Be humble, appreciate people, because ignorance and arrogance are twins.’”

Yo-Yo Ma (Filip Wolak photo)

Humanizing an Icon

Two women, Chief of Staff Jeanne D’Onofrio and Executive Assistant to the President Natasha Davids, both of whom worked with Gregorian at the Carnegie Corporation for decades and knew him well, humorously related some of the honoree’s human frailties, bringing knowing laughter from the audience. Humanizing him, they revealed how he lost things, was always late, and could be paranoid and insufferable. However, “he was brilliant, charming, funny, generous, and always a teacher,” they concluded to wild applause.

Afeyan, co-founder of the Aurora Foundation who had known the honoree for many years, quoted a powerful phrase of Gregorian when he was asked how it felt to be so powerful: “I have never been interested in power, but in knowledge.”

In an emotional eulogy, son Raffi Gregorian, a United Nations Director and Deputy on Counter-Terrorism, spoke of his father’s eagerness to know more about the Armenian Genocide. “Early in his life, the pain and loss of his mother and grandfather weighed greatly on him. These childhood traumas manifested later in his life, and he said to never humiliate anyone.”

Continuing, Raffi Gregorian emphasized that the church “gave him solace and elicited the warmth he showed to people.” Becoming tearful, he stressed that “dignity mattered greatly to my father, as evidenced in the book he authored, Kindness to Strangers.”

In the final benediction, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, related that “Vartan once revealed to me that he and his sister as children slept on the roof of their home in order to see the stars. His grandmother and Vartan were stars of the human soul,” he stated slowly, with great emphasis.

Stirring Performances

Legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, appearing via video link-up, played a soul-searing rendition of Groong (“The Crane”) by Gomidas Vartabed, with exquisite understanding and feeling. He also performed with great virtuosity, Bach’s Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor.

Peter Balakian, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Colgate University professor, recited his poem dedicated to Vartan Gregorian’s grandmother and also to the Armenian Genocide, with the work referencing the honoree’s life story. “Vartan Gregorian was an American original, and a powerful example of Armenian force and pride,” Balakian said.

Acclaimed singer Isabel Bayrakdarian, accompanied by a professional duduk player, shared a soulful Der Voghormia (“Lord Have Mercy”) by Gomidas.

Choir members from St. Vartan Cathedral and St. Illuminator’s Cathedral in New York, under the direction of Khoren Mekanejian, spiritually and with great feeling sang Makar Yekmalian’s Hayr Mer and Sourp, Sourp, which opened the program.

The soloists included Hasmik Mekanejian, Anahit Zakaryan, Hasmik Asatryan, Alvard Mayilyan, and Zovinar Aghavian. Ara Dinkjian with great dexterity transformed his portable keyboard to the sounds of an organ and musically accompanied the singers.

Following the memorial event, speakers, performers, and guests boarded private buses to a reception, and for several hours traded personal stories of Dr. Vartan Gregorian’s exemplary life and accomplishments. One attendee, voicing the feelings of many, called the event’s tribute “a festival of love.”


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