The new NAASR headquarters (William Horne photo)

BELMONT, Mass. — One of the most constant presences in the history of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) has been Yervant Chekijian. Chekijian served as a member of the board of directors of NAASR for more than 20 years, and as chair for six years before retiring.

Yervant Chekijian speaking at the NAASR gala in 2019

“I turned it over to the next generation last November,” he said in a recent interview.

During that time, he spearheaded the construction of the organization’s new headquarters, a building filled with floor-to-ceiling windows and temperature-controlled rooms, which replaced its former wood-paneled, dingy headquarters on Concord Avenue.

His history with — and love for — the organization, however, goes back more than 60 years, to the time when he had just moved to the US with his family, from Jerusalem. Shortly after his arrival, he had the chance to attend the celebration NAASR held for endowing the first ever Armenian Studies chair, which happened to be at Harvard.

“I was a teenager — 16 years old — when I attended the victory banquet celebrating NAASR’s successful campaign to endow a chair at Harvard University for Armenian Studies [named the Mashtots Chair]. I was amazed that as a teenager, over 1,000 people were at that banquet and everyone was very excited. Memorial Hall was alive with Armenian expectations,” he recalled.

Yervant Chekijian, extreme right background, at the grand opening of the new NAASR headquarters in 2019, listening to Sarah Ignatius speak

At that point, in 1958, many Armenians here were only a few decades removed from the horrors they had survived during the Armenian Genocide. “They were here in a wonderful country where they could look forward to being able to teach the world about Armenian history, culture, identity and this was a very major, major step,” he said. “Visionaries like Manoog Young [the founding chairman of NAASR] and others came up with this initiative and now we are at that point when we are able to fulfill the mission even more comprehensively.”

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NAASR will celebrate Chekijian’s contributions, as well as the appointment of Prof. Christina Maranci to the Harvard University Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies and the 25th anniversary of Academic Advisor Marc Mamigonian, at a gala on May 6 at the Charles Hotel.

From Deir Zor to Watertown

Chekijian was born to Mary and Youhanna Chekijian; the family moved to the US when he was 16. His parents, he said, had survived the Deir Zor marches and had ended up in Aleppo, Syria. Both orphans, they married there and moved to Jerusalem, in then Palestine. His sister was born in Syria while he and his two brothers were born in Palestine.

As Israel was created and war was launched, his father lost his livelihood. “We were in a very difficult situation and he was able to get the opportunity to bring the family to the US. That was the best thing that happened to us at that time,” he said.

The family moved to Boston and found out about the Armenian community of Watertown after six months and moved there. He attended Watertown High School, later Boston University, and finally, the Thunderbird School of Global Management at University of Arizona.

Chekijian has spent his entire career in the hotel industry, working his way up from a trainee to the president of the Omni International Hotels. Now retired, he works harder. He joked, “After retirement, I got even busier” with NAASR.

Chekijian as board chair at NAASR, was preceded by Young, Nancy Kolligian and Raffi Yeghiayan.

Chekijian is proud of what he has accomplished, but stresses that he has done no more than what the previous NAASR board chairs have done. “My advice to others has always been there is no such thing as the next chairman does a better job. I didn’t do a better job than Nancy or Raffi. We all have to build on what we have accomplished. To do that, we need to do some more expanding, such as children’s programs, to work very hard to make sure we have the next generation on their way,” he said.

New Era at NAASR

When the board at NAASR asked him to become chair, he accepted, but with a proviso. He explained that he agreed to take on the task “on the condition that I be a very transformative chairman,” he said. “I think with any organization, whether it’s a for-profit company or a non-profit … there comes a time when life has been going on … and it’s time to consider the environment you are in and the needs of the nation that we were serving, and to be able to plan for the future,” he said. “For me, transformation meant to really excel in what we were doing and the services we were providing, to increase our financial resources and build for the future.”

Thus, he explained, he knew a new building in place of their original headquarters was necessary. “Where we were was not really built for the future and so we really took the first steps in considering to build a new headquarters,” he added.

The new NAASR headquarters (William Horne photo)

The light and airy finished building, named the Vartan Gregorian Building, was unveiled in November 2019, where a proud Yeghiayan spoke. The primary donor for the building was the late philanthropist Edward Avedisian, who, in a typically modest move, made the donation only with the condition that the building not be named after him but for his friend, the legendary educator Dr. Vartan Gregorian.

Chekijian said, “Ed Avedisian was very instrumental. He was the lead donor for the building. The net result is that we have a fabulous structure there. More importantly, it is alive and is being used not just by NAASR but by the Armenian community.”

NAASR now holds more than 50 programs every years, keeping the new building well used. “We have something going on nearly every week,” he said.

The building is modern yet very Armenian and traditional. “We worked with [the engineering firm] SMMA of Cambridge, where Ara Krafian is the president. Because of Ara’s connection and heritage, they gave us a tremendous amount of attention. They really studied Armenian heritage and culture. They even traveled to Armenia to look at the heritage that they wanted so somehow incorporate,” he said.

For example, he said, the Armenian alphabet is incorporated into the wall of the third floor, while the main door was carved out from wood by an Armenian craftsman, with historical markings and the solarium windows have the pattern of lacework, and one set of stairs pays tribute to the stairs at Armenia’s historic Noravank Monastery.

Finally, a sculpture by artist and silversmith Michael Aram graces the outside of the building.

He added, “These were all thought-out very carefully. Sarah [Ignatius, former executive director] and I met with the designers every week, to the point where we said this is it, this is what we want to construct,” he said.

“We were able to raise $7.5 million and from the moment we started fundraising, my dream was to say the building was fully funded,” he said. “We have fully funded it.”


In the past decade, NAASR has begun more collaborative efforts with other community organizations both in the state as well as around the country.

This again, Chekijian said, is in keeping with the mission of the organization and one that he wanted to focus on.

“Everything we do is within the mission of the organization. This was always part of the bylaws of the organization. We were at a point when we were not able to fulfill what our mission called for,” he said. “Part of the transformation, the new building, the new efforts was to get closer to fulfill the mission of the organization.”

“We have moved from strictly historical programing to what Armenia needs. We have increased our programing to deal with the contemporary needs of the Armenian nation,” he said.

Scholars come from all over the world. Every three months the organization considers grants, many from Armenia. NAASR works with the Knights of Vartan to make a bigger impact. “We have a very strong academic committee that reviews each one of the requests,” he said, beginning with Academic Director Marc Mamigonian.

He also praised the “27 very distinguished board members, a very strong executive committee that works on a daily basis. I had the pleasure of working with an outstanding executive director, Sarah Ignatius,” he noted. He also praised the new executive director, Silva Sedrakian.

As for future goals, he noted, “We need to strengthen further, even, our financial situation. From that perspective, we need to do even more grants, make sure that graduate students who have dedicated themselves to Armenian studies have the ability to do so financially,” he added.

Endowed Armenian Chairs

There are currently 13 Armenian Studies chairs in the US, and Chekijian said, “I am sure some are more effective than others.” NAASR has been instrumental in the founding of the chairs not only at Harvard but at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) the Narekatsi Chair in Armenian Studies, whose current occupant is Prof. Peter Cowe. (UCLA has a second Armenian studies chair, the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, whose occupant is Prof. Sebouh Aslanian.)

NAASR, according to its website, has also supported Armenian Studies programs at a number of these universities, including the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Amherst, Wayne State University, Tufts University, California State University at Fresno, University of Connecticut, Rutgers University, Bentley College, University of California at Berkeley, and Sage Colleges in New York. From the impetus provided by NAASR, some eighteen endowed chairs (professorships), programs, lectureships, and research centers have been established at United States universities and colleges, primarily by individuals and foundations.

“When you look back at the time that NAASR was founded there weren’t any Armenian scholars. Today there are dozens and dozens all around the world. The programs that we talked about, the books that are written, it’s all because of that. If you go to the bookstore at NAASR bookstore you will see 1000 titles. When the Harvard Chair was established, there were just a handful of Armenian books in English.”

Not all the chairs are thriving. The Harvard Armenian Chair had been languishing for years since the departure of Prof. James Russell. Only last year was a chair appointed, Prof. Christina Maranci. Others, like Columbia University, still do not have a chair.

Offering some hope, Chekijian said Columbia seems to be moving forward to appointing a chair.

He noted, “Armenian studies are thriving more than ever. From the time that I was involved, you would have just a few people doing Armenian studies. Now you have dozens,” he noted. “Our library has more than 35,000 rare books that are accessed by scholars.”

“We have given the impetus for the Armenian nation to be active in educating the world about our history, our culture and our identity and this has become particularly important when we have a country now and many of us just dreamt about it. If the world did not know anything about Armenia, it would be an even more difficult situation than right now,” Chekijian said.

To find out more about NAASR, visit

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