Dennis Papazian at the Times Square commemoration a few years ago

Remembering Dennis Papazian

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The scene is in an old-fashioned dining room, decorated with antique furniture and an oriental rug. Green holly and red ribbons deck the walls and cabinets, indicating that it is Christmas. The yellowish light bulbs give the room a warmth contrasting with the darkness outside, and reflect the snow falling outside the windows.

It is American Christmas Eve in the Kezelian household, circa 1994, a festive celebration to which some 50 family and friends, Armenians and non-Armenian, were invited. As the various “aunties” cleared the tables and began washing the dishes, the kids scrambled to other rooms to play, and the middle-aged men stood around talking about the stock market or the weather or who was playing in the Rose Bowl, three elder patriarchs seated themselves at the head of the dining room table and with their after-dinner coffee (and perhaps some ghourabia or pakhlava), began the really serious discussions. Seated in the middle, that is, at the head of the table, is my grandfather, Harry A. Kezelian, Sr., known as “Papa Harry,” a genial, slightly rotund man of about 70 with a red sweater-vest and a thinning head of grey hair above his squarish-round face and thick glasses. A successful small business owner who propelled his family into the upper middle class with the dry cleaning business, he is a man of the people, but self-educated and interested in Armenian and world affairs on all levels. With his collection of National Geographic magazines and his ability to read and write Armenian, rare for someone born in Detroit, he was the one who facilitated these discussions at his and his wife’s annual Christmas Eve party at the new home in swanky Bloomfield Hills which they had purchased only five years before. It was a long way from “Zone Nine” where he had grown up and where until the age of 4 he had lived in one tiny room with his father and mother in the back of his father’s shoe repair shop. Though not educated beyond high school, he enjoyed intellectual discussions. Not only giving back to the community but being educated on its affairs, for him was one of the purposes of material success. In this aspect, he was like the character of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who sang in “If I Were a Rich Man”:

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall

And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, seven hours every day,

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And that would be the sweetest thing of all!

Replace the Jewish references with Armenian ones, and you have some idea of what my grandfather valued. He was, naturally the moderator of the discussion.

His two interlocutors were Fr. Diran Papazian, known to the community as “Der Diran” and to us as “Uncle Der Hayr;” and Der Diran’s brother-in-law, Prof. Dennis Papazian, known to us as “Uncle Dennis.” (Uncle Dennis’ sister, Rosalie, was married to Der Diran; though her maiden name was also Papazian, the families were not related). Dennis and Rosalie’s older sister, Priscilla, though now living out of town, had been the best friend of my grandmother, Mary Kezelian.

Der Diran was a few years older than my grandfather, nobody really knew how old, since he was sent to the Jerusalem Seminary after being orphaned in Constantinople at a young age, where he was born during the years of the Allied Occupation just after the First World War. He had a heavy Armenian accent and was fluent in several languages. Like a mystic vartabed of old, Der Diran dispensed the church’s wisdom in clever aphorisms and did not shy away from jokes. Der Diran, like all Armenian theologians, believed that heaven was the mystical wedding feast of the Bridegroom, Christ, with his Bride, the Church; but in his case, he seemed to act every day as if he were already present at those festivities, and was a vivacious party goer as well as a spiritual sage.

The third member of this group was Uncle Dennis. In his “professor’s uniform” of a brown sport jacket (I don’t remember if it had elbow patches) and a sweater vest over his shirt and tie, he had glasses as thick as my grandfather’s and a face even more round. He was rotund like my grandfather but shared Der Diran’s dark complexion, and his hair, though thinning and almost bald on top, was still brown; he also had a closely trimmed, though wide, mustache. He was a history professor and this entitled him to great deference and respect in academic matters, besides, he was an expert on the Soviet Union and with Armenia’s recent independence from the USSR, his knowledge was more in need than ever. He was about ten years younger than the other two men.

Occasionally, one of the Jewish relatives or family friends (my dad’s cousin was married to a Jewish gentleman), would sit in on this discussion and contribute a valued Old Testament perspective. But the only child, in fact the only other person, who was drawn to this summit meeting of Armenian Patriarchs was myself, Harry A. Kezelian III, age 9.

What did they discuss? Everything from politics, to history, to theology; the Armenian Church, Armenian history, the Genocide, and the newly independent Republic of Armenia; world history, international politics and current events; Armenian community affairs and “church politics,” and always, how we as the Armenian people could survive and thrive given our understanding of all this.

As a 9-year-old, I wanted to enter their world and to be a part of it. This set my life on a trajectory where I was always interested in learning and academic pursuits; a romanticized childhood dream of becoming an archaeologist gave way to pursuing a major in history; practicality led me to law school; pursuit of something more fitting to my personality led me to St. Nersess Seminary, a career teaching high school history, and most recently to writing for the Mirror-Spectator.

As a kid, I didn’t think much about Uncle Dennis’ specific accomplishments, like his role in establishing the Armenian Assembly, his fighting for Genocide recognition, expanding the field of Armenian studies, and his career as a scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union which included a life changing trip to the USSR in the early 1960s (culminating in his miraculous survival of a plane crash in Uzbekistan). All these stories are contained in his recently published book of memoirs; some of them I learned for the first time from reading the book.

Despite the fact that I had known the man my entire life, I think I saw him from a different perspective than any of his colleagues, close friends, or even family members. To me he was a foundational figure in the world I inhabited as a child; and while I did not really know the details of his academic career and expertise, his very existence as an “Armenian Professor” was a given, a cornerstone of my understanding of the community in which I was raised. Did I have a question about Armenian History? “Go ask Uncle Dennis,” I would be told.

Although he and his family departed Michigan for the East Coast when I was 19, I think we shared a special bond that I did not have even with my grandfather or Der Diran, as close as I was to both of them. It’s not that I was closer to Uncle Dennis, but that in me he recognized a kindred soul, and I understood and appreciated that recognition. Both he and I had the kind of brain that put education and learning as one of the highest values, aside from morality. While I didn’t pursue an academic career as he did, he never faulted me for that; while he knew I had the intelligence and interest, the world had changed a lot since he got his start in the early 1960s.

When I applied to college, he helped me write my admissions essay. I recall arriving at his house, and him greeting me with “Parev, inch bes es?” and kissing me on both cheeks in old country fashion. I didn’t know any other grown man who was born in America who did this. Yet, it was entirely natural for someone like Uncle Dennis. It was simply a normal part of Old World culture. In everything he did, Uncle Dennis made traditional Armenian culture “normal” in the US by simply acting like an Armenian without explanation and without apology.

When I asked him for a summer job during college, he hired me to work at the Armenian Research Center, even though he was packing up and leaving town that summer to move to New Jersey where his wife, Dr. Mary Papazian, had gotten a new job. When I visited Armenia later that summer, he asked me to get in contact with Professor Levon Chookasezian, “if I had time,” and bring back some books for the Center. I did not complete my mission, but Uncle Dennis did not fault me for that. He knew that I had the intellectual capability and interest to appreciate and understand the things he cared about. Whether I did them or not was obviously due to some other factor, probably unknown to him and probably irrelevant. Regardless of what I did or did not accomplish, he had faith in my intelligence and that gave me faith in myself. It was a kind of faith that I hadn’t really seen other than from my parents, close family, and perhaps some of my very best teachers and clergy mentors.

From reading his memoirs, I realized that Uncle Dennis made his career during a time, the second half of the twentieth century, when the Armenian-American community was firmly establishing itself as a known presence in the US. Part of this process included the development of a way of doing things that was endemic to the Armenian community in the Diaspora in general and in North America in particular. In the establishment of this new ethos, which was a largely successful attempt to keep the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new, while discarding systems and thought processes that were either outdated or simply did not work in the United States, Uncle Dennis was one of the primary actors.

When I was in undergrad at the University of Michigan, I researched and wrote a thesis on the life of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, another of the primary actors in the process of community formation in the US. Serving as Primate of the Eastern Diocese from 1945-1954, Nersoyan presided over a time of change and adjustment, shepherding the Armenian Church from an institution that primarily served immigrants into one that recognized the growing percentage of American-born Armenians in its constituency. The founding of the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) in 1946, marked one of the primary achievements of the Nersoyan administration, corralling the American-born Armenian youth into the Church and community life in the post-WWII era. I knew that Uncle Dennis had been active in the ACYOA in his early years, but I learned from his book how close he had been to Nersoyan, whom he viewed as a mentor. It didn’t surprise me in the least. When I did my research on Nersoyan, it struck me that the entire mentality of the Armenian-American community, at least that segment of it that I grew up in, was profoundly influenced by his view of the world, the church, and the Armenian people.

Therefore, it was no surprise that what Nersoyan did in regard to the church, his protégé, Dennis Papazian, helped to do in regard to Diasporan politics. The founding of the Armenian Assembly, which initially brought together all major Diasporan political and religious groups, heralded a new approach to Diasporan political lobbying, which was now based on the mentality of the American-born generations of Armenians. That this fact was pointed out to me as a positive development by Prof. Jirair Libaridian, who could not have been more different than Dennis Papazian in his temperament and his attitude toward the church, underscored the value of that contribution. Unfortunately, that unity was short-lived, a fact which Uncle Dennis lamented in my last interview with him. But just like the work of Nersoyan, Dennis Papazian’s work helped to create the Armenian community which I took for granted as a young person.

I regret that I did not find the time to read his book from cover to cover, and speak to him about it. After our last interview, he exhorted me to read it so that we could speak again and discuss the book. There was no particular reason for us to have a second Zoom session, especially considering the time difference to California and the state of his health. He simply wanted to. Obviously, he valued my opinion and he still wanted to take an opportunity to share his knowledge with me, to teach me.

I’m not sure if he realized it, but he had been teaching me the whole time. Uncle Dennis’ entire life was a lesson to me – a lesson in how to be an Armenian, how to be an American, how to be both at once, how to be an educated person, how to be a scholar, how to be a professional, and how to serve the church and the community. Though not a blood relative, I like to think I inherited some part of his spirit, and I will certainly carry that on in everything I do as an Armenian-American and as a human being in the world.

 

 

 

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