That history has countless unsung heroes is undeniable. When looking in detail at the history of any movement there are almost always scores of important figures whose names have been largely overlooked or forgotten. The AYF is no exception.
Although Karekin Nejdeh is rightly considered to be the founder of the AYF, there were several other pioneering leaders who played a pivotal role in formulating and establishing our organization more than 75 years ago.
One of these leading figures is Asadour “Arthur” Giragosian, the chairman of the first Central Executive and one of the key architects to shape the first five decades of AYF organizational life.
Born in the village of Morenik in Kharpert (Western Armenia) in 1910, Giragosian was orphaned at an early age, when both of his parents became victims of the Armenian Genocide. After escaping from the Turkish family that took him, he was forced to migrate from one sanctuary to the next, finally ending up at a Near East orphanage on the Greek island of Corfu.
As one can imagine, the destruction and loss he had to face at such an early age had a profound effect on Giragosian’s life. He experienced first-hand the calamity of the genocide and the persecution of Armenia’s at the hands of the Turks. Restoring what was ripped from him and redeeming the pride of his people became burning obsessions that stayed with him throughout his life.
Despite these harrowing experiences, Giragosian soon developed an outgoing personality and a tremendous knack for leadership. When foreign dignitaries would visit the Corfu orphanage, it was Giragosian who was chosen to represent the Armenian children and welcome the distinguished guests. Due to his gregariousness, he was given the opportunity to greet such historic figures as Ethiopian President Haile Selassie and American actor Jackie Coogan. A picture with the latter star actually appeared in Liberty magazine in the U.S. at that time.
After several years at the orphanage, Giragosian suddenly received surprising news: his father had lived in America and received citizenship before he was born, making Arthur by birthright a U.S. citizen. Thus, at the age of 17, with the help of his uncle, he decided to leave the orphanage in Greece and make his way to the United States.
Upon arriving in Providence, R.I., he took on various odd jobs to save up money and began to quickly pick up the English language. He also immersed himself in Armenian community life and spent time reading the nationalist writings of such authors as Raffi and Avedis Aharonian.
By 1929, Giragosian had settled permanently in Worcester, Mass., and it was here that this young, yet seasoned Armenian patriot would help build the most enduring and prominent Armenian youth organization in North America.
After organizing the “Aram” Youth Group (Yerdasartats Khoump) in Worcester, Giragosian sought to reach out to other ARF affiliated youth groups and bring them together under one national umbrella. In 1929, a convention was organized with the participation of 13 chapters and, after much debate, it was decided that a new youth organization named the “Abrilian Hai Vortiks” would be created. Giragossian was elected to its Central Executive but, unfortunately, this pioneering initiative was short-lived. It was dissolved after six months, mostly due to a lack of consensus over the name and other overarching issues.
Although this early attempt to form what would become the AYF did not materialize, the groundwork for General Nejdeh to come in as an ARF fieldworker and mobilize the youth around the idea of a consolidated national entity had successfully been laid. Girgagosian was instrumental in helping set the stage for the conception of a unified Armenian youth organization.
The delegates at the founding Convention of the AYF in June of 1934 recognized Giragosian’s foresight and leadership by selecting him to co-chair the meeting and adopting his proposal to name the nascent organization the “ARF Tzeghagrons” (the original title used by the AYF until 1941), albeit after a much heated discussion. He went on to be elected to the first AYF Central Executive, where he served as the organization’s first chairman.
Giragosian was elected to four other consecutive Central Executives and served as chairman on all but one of them. He was also a participating founder of Camp Haiastan and served on countless AYF Central Councils. After graduating the ran’s of the AYF, he continued to work with the youth as ARF advisor until World War II. Even in his later years, Giragosian could regularly be found accompanying AYF members on the bus to Junior Seminar or taking time out to educate and inspire future generations of AYF youth.
His pioneering role in helping shape the structure and activities of the AYF, as well as his lifetime of service to the Armenian community, led Giragosian to be named the first National Honorary Member of the AYF. He was also crowned Olympic King during the 1989 games.
In addition to his hard work and devotion, perhaps Giragosian’s most unforgettable attribute was his profound oratory skill. As he himself would admit, “Jahr khosogh em” (I am an extemporaneous speaker). Aside from framing a few thoughts in his head, he would almost never prepare for his speeches, yet would always succeed in mesmerizing the audiences he came before. Many of his fellow youth would comment that Arthur could lead them anywhere.
Because of this magnetic speaking ability and his frequent travels to Armenian communities throughout the country, the late James H. Tashjian remembered Arthur for being “the Great Voice, the bugler of the Armenian nation.” Following Giragosian’s passing in 1990, Russell Gasparian also offered the following tribute to Arthur on his Armenian Radio Hour in Providence:
“Wherever Asadour was, it seemed that the stage arose and that a bomb was about to explode. His presence was electric. Always liked and respected everywhere. We saw and listened to General Sebouh, General Nejdeh, Simon Vratsian, Vartkes Aharonian, and Arsen Mikaelian–all of them Armenian heroes. But among them all, the most electrifying, the most liked was Asadour Giragosian. When Asadour spoke, it was as though he spoke from everyone’s heart. Asadour became the believable Dashnaktsakan. For years he carried the torch of the Dashnaktsoutiun and the Armenian people.”
As can be seen in this brief synopsis, the legacy left by Giragosian figures to be one of the most significant in not only AYF history, but that of the Armenian-American community as a whole. With a life story worthy of a feature film and contributions that have transcended his generation, Giragosian deserves to be remembered for the true AYF/ARF pioneer that he was.
As we reflect on the past 75 years, it is important for the youth of today to learn more about our organization’s “Founding Fathers.” Of course, this includes not only Giragosian but such legendary figures as K. Merton “Uncle Bozo” Bozoian, Florence Kasparian, Popken Hachigian, James G. Mandalian, and countless others who worked day in and day out to light the torch of the movement we are carrying on to this day.
By doing so, we can not only pay proper tribute to those who came before us, we can also gain a better understanding of what it took to get us this far and what it will take to go even further into the future.