Paul Ignatius

Washington’s 102-year-old Armenian: Former Secretary of the Navy Paul Ignatius

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WASHINGTON – Near the end of the 19th century, at the American Euphrates College in Kharpert located on historical Armenian territory, student Avedis Zhamgochian, inspired by the ideas of liberty, wrote a poem that cherished freedom and equality. The Ottoman Turkish authorities didn’t like his vision and persecuted him. Avedis was educated and spoke English quite well: he had even translated some Western authors into Armenian. The Zhamgochians were importers of cotton goods from Manchester, England. Using the British connections and his language skills, Avedis made his way to Manchester with his infant daughter Elisa. Later, by 1911 he settled down in what is now Glendale, California. In modern half-Armenian Glendale, which Avetis’s grandson Paul Ignatius described as Yerevan-West, his grandfather might have been perhaps the first-ever Armenian settler.

Avedis Zhamgochian with his family in England

Avedis had six children: the eldest was born in Kharpert, the youngest in Glendale, and the rest in England.

During the same period, another Armenian-American, Hovsep Boghos Ignatosian (Ignatius), ran a successful glass-manufacturing business in West Virginia on the East Coast. Soon after the Hamidian massacres (1894-1896), he, wary of new persecutions, found refuge in the US, became a factory manager, and eventually launched his own enterprise. Once, for business purposes, he came to Los Angeles, where he met and fell in love with Elisa Zhmagochian, the daughter of Avedis. Thereafter he stayed in California.

A US Secretary of Navy (1967-69) and US Deputy Defense Secretary, the most successful Armenian-American in the executive branch of the US government, Paul Ignatius, is the son of  Hovsep and Elisa. Today, the retired and highly distinguished military commander resides in his Washington, D.C. apartment, where we met for an interview.

“I spent four years in the Navy in World War II, in a small aircraft carrier fighting against the Japanese,” recalls Ignatius. “We got into a lot of action. But we had a wonderful captain.” Once, the vessel was hit by two kamikazes near the Philippines. Several shipmates were lost, and a number of aircraft were damaged, but the crew was able to contain the fair and save the ship. “I learned a lot in combats. I learned how to take responsibility,” added Ignatius, citing his World War II background as an essential experience for his future career in Washington. His brother and two uncles served as officers as well.

When John Kennedy came to power in 1961, the White House began hiring professionals for the new administration. Paul Ignatius, who was running a consulting group at that point, was asked whether he would like to join the government. Consequently, Ignatius worked as Assistant Secretary of the Army and then Undersecretary of the Army.

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“Then, for 3.5 years, I was an Assistant Secretary of Defense, and for the last roughly two years (1967-1969), I was the Secretary of the Navy. This was an interesting experience as I served as a Naval officer in World War II, and I ended up being the civilian leader of the Navy,” added Ignatius, recalling his meetings with several later presidents, from John Kennedy to Jimmy Carter. “We have a wonderful family photo with President Kennedy at the White House Rose Garden. He seems not interested in what I am saying but rather looking at my beautiful wife,” recalls Ignatius with a smile.

William Saroyan was a frequent visitor of the Ignatosian family

Along with highly successful careers, the Ignatosians engaged with the Armenian community. Hovsep Ignatosian helped raise funds for NAASR (National Association for Armenian Studies and Research). Later, his granddaughter Sara Ignatius led NAASR for several years and retired after working extensively on the renovation of NAASR’s building in Boston area. “Right now, while we are talking, she is at Washington’s local Armenian church picking up some dolma, eggplants, and shish-kebab for our dinner tonight. And it’s really good,” added Paul Ignatius at the end of our conversation.

Paul Robert Ignatius has two sons and two daughters, with the sons being notable journalists and the daughters notable lawyers. In 2019, a USS battleship was named after Paul Ignatius.

The video segment below represents an interview with Paul Ignatius. Some video material used in the segment were taken from the Defense Visual Information Distribution System.

(Another report with one more 102-year-old Armenian-American resident of the Washington, D.C. area, Ed Alexander, will be published soon.)

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