FRESNO, Calif.—On the weekend of October 25-27, 2013, members of the Armenian Bar Association from across the country were united in Fresno, California, to recognize and honor California Court of Appeal Justice Charles “Chuck” Poochigian and several members of Fresno’s judiciary for their outstanding dedication to public service and their Armenian heritage.
The Association’s pilgrimage to Fresno, one of the oldest Armenian-American communities in the United States with its roots dating back to the late 1800’s, started off with a Friday evening dinner at the century-old Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. ArmenBar members sat side by side with Fresno Armenians, young and old alike, enjoying authentic Armenian cuisines and shared ideas and their vision for the future of the community in Fresno at the Church’s Annual Bazaar.
On Saturday, October 26th, distinguished Professor of Armenian Studies at California State University Fresno, Barlow Der Mugrdechian, guided Association members on a four-hour tour of the many historic sites of Fresno County. The tour included visits to the epic statue of David of Sassoun that adorns the Civic Center. This was followed by a soul-stirring expedition to the Ararat and Massis Armenian Cemeteries located on the west side of the city. Members paused to reflect on the immense contributions of notable figures, such as world literary giant William Saroyan and Armenian hero Soghomon Tehlirian. In the presence and shadows of thousands of modern-day Khachkars, members contemplated the sacrifices and successes of their ancestors and paid homage at the tombs of the very first settlers of the Armenian community in Fresno.
The tour next took the attendees for a visit to century-old St. Gregory’s Armenian Church in Fowler, where parish Father Yeghia Hairabedian greeted the delegation and traced the history of the farm community and congregation which has earned an important and continuing legacy. From there, the group moved to the ever-popular Simonian Farms on the edge of Fresno’s wide country roads, where the attendees had a chance to pick fruit in a tribute to Armenian farmers and families who brought with them the talents they developed in their hometowns of Kharpert, Moush, Bitlis, Van, Erzerum and Dickrangerd to make the Central Valley of California one of the greatest food-producing areas in the entire world.
The tour was capped with a visit to California State University Fresno’s Armenian Studies Department. There the guests had a chance to observe first-hand the many outstanding programs the university has developed in educating students in the Armenian language, history and culture. Chairman Ghazarian stated that “We are thankful to Prof. Der Mugrdechian for taking his valuable time to educate us about the rich and vibrant history of Fresno.”
Following the Fresno Armenian heritage tour, Armenian Bar members were invited to attend a private reception and meeting at the recentl- constructed California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District. Located in Fresno’s “Old Armenian Town” section, the attendees had the unique opportunity to hear Justice Chuck Poochigian, along with Presiding Justice of the Fifth Appellate District, Justice Brad Hill, and the highest sitting Armenian-American jurist in California, Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvin Baxter, greet the Armenian Bar and guide the guests to the court’s library, conference room and pointed out the unique architectural features of the building which conjure images of beautiful Yosemite National Park in many of its architectural motifs and details.
On Saturday evening, the star-spangled highlight of the weekend took place, when the Association hosted its Judges’ Night dinner gala in the grand hall of Holy Trinity Church. The event drew nearly two hundred guests representing a broad cross-section of Fresno’s legal community. Several prominent law firms, including Baker Manock, Baradat & Paboojian, Dowling Aaron, Coleman & Horowitt, Lozano Smith, McCormick Barstow and Tomassian, Pimentel & Shapazian served as sponsors for the festivities. Joining the law firms as sponsors were Fresno Armenian families that are very active in and have served the community for generations, including the Apkarian, Messerlian, Parnagian and Poochigian families.
Former ArmenBar board member and Los Angeles attorney, Garo K. Hovannisian, served as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Mr. Hovannisian welcomed the guests and invited Father Vahan Gosdanian to offer the evening’s invocation. Hovannisian then drawing a parallel to a teacher at a boarding school, whose students refer to him as “Oh captain, my captain” and hailing him as an inspiring leader who sets an array of examples of public service by his deeds, welcomed ArmenBar Chairman Garo Ghazarian to the podium to deliver his remarks.
Ghazarian solemnly opened his presentation by asking that all those present rise for a moment of silence to reflect on the memories of those who are buried in the Armenian cemeteries of Fresno, and honor the sacrifices made by those earlier generations of Fresno Armenians who, out of the ashes of the Armenian Genocide, built a vibrant community for all those who came to America in the years and decades that followed. Chairman Ghazarian stated, “Why are we here? Why did the Armenian Bar decide to come to Fresno? Is it because Fresno needs us? No, it’s because we need Fresno.”
Ghazarian urged the young and old lawyers of Fresno to renew their commitments to not only the legal canons of their profession, but also to the moral canons of being Armenians. He said that while speaking, reading and writing in Armenian are wonderful traits to possess, they are not exclusive, and not being proficient in these abilities does not preclude those from being Armenians through and through. To be an Armenian, Ghazarian continued, “one needs to feel the need and urgency in his or her soul, and be of service to the Armenian community and to the Armenian Cause – Hye Tad.”
Finally, Chairman Ghazarian thanked Fresno for giving the Armenian Bar its founder, Raffi K. Hovannisian, and concluded by pointing out that we, as Armenians, owe a debt of gratitude to the United States, our adopted homeland, for all the opportunities that are available to us, to excel as human beings, and to do so while maintaining our identities as Armenian-Americans.
The audience was treated to a musical interlude by talented Fresno tenor Berj Apkarian who lifted the spirits of the audience to even higher plateaus with his virtuoso performance of traditional Armenian songs. Thereafter, in a surprise presentation, retired California Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian, presented copies of his autobiographical book, “From Gravel to Gavel,” to Justices Baxter and Poochigian.
Justice Baxter was then invited to the podium to address the guests and say a few words about the evening’s honoree Justice Poochigian. A native of Fowler, California, Justice Baxter eloquently described that while the first Armenians to the Central Valley were given refuge from the horrors of the Ottoman Empire, they were not exactly welcomed with open arms. He recounted how the ancestors of Fresno’s Armenian community had to endure the outright discrimination that came with restrictive land covenants and preclusion from many social and fraternal organizations. Justice Baxter recalled how this differential treatment resulted in the phenomenon of the Armenians living closely together and forming the social organizations and fraternal bonds that would help the community survive to the present day. Justice Baxter praised the Armenian Bar for recognizing and honoring Fresno’s native son, Chuck Poochigian.
The evening’s most compelling remarks were made by Armenian Bar former Chairman and current Vice-Chairman, Armen K. Hovannisian. A founding member of the organization, Vice-Chairman Hovannisian gave a rousing and deeply-meaningful tribute to Justice Poochigian highlighting his adherence to the values that his forefathers brought with them to Fresno from Armenia nearly 100 years ago. As an outstanding model of these values, Justice Poochigian, Hovannisian explained, has rightfully earned a reputation of honesty, integrity, and decency, as well as the singular recognition of being “A Man among Men, An Example among Examples, and A Judge among Judges.”
Harkening back to the fundamentally positive core values of the early Armenian-American generations, Hovannisian commented, “Chuck Poochigian is the most dominant and complete carrier of those genetics,” Mr. Hovannisian then asked several Fresno County Superior Court Judges who were present to stand and be recognized for their lifetime achievements and dedication to the administration of justice. Among that group were Superior Court Judges Brian Arax, David Kalemkarian, Debra Kazanjian, Edward Sarkisian, Houry Sanderson, John Vogt, and James Aaron (retired).
Humbled by the honor, Justice Poochigian praised Armen Hovannisian and the Armenian Bar Association for all of its worthy accomplishments over the years in service not only to the Armenian-American community, but also to Armenia. Justice Poochigian was then presented with a magnificent Armenian peacock painting by Glendale artist, Seroon Yeretsian, with an inscription recognizing Justice Poochigian for the extraordinary example he has been to his community.
Chairman Ghazarian concluded by stating: “The memories made by the Armenian Bar’s pilgrimage to California’s Central Valley and the Armenian-American community are engrained in the minds and hearts of those who were fortunate to be able to spend the last weekend of October 2013 in Fresno. We look forward to and vow to soon return home to Fresno in the near future.