Oakland, Calif.,— Hundreds of former and current athletes gathered, from near and far, at St. Vartan Armenian Church to honor Richard Demirjian for his decades of service. With Richard in attendance, the tribute luncheon, which was held on June 2, was a great opportunity for former teammates and friends to reminisce about their fond memories all under the leadership and guidance of Demirjian.
For nearly six decades, Richard was the catalyst for participation throughout California by Armenian youth in athletic competition, including track and field, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, softball, tennis and soccer. The gathering provided an opportunity to show Richard how much he personally meant to everyone in the room and beyond.
In 1969, Demirjian, along with Ben Morjig, spearheaded the Western Armenian Athletic Association games, which was first held in the San Francisco Bay Area, and later in Fresno. The games ran for 46 years with thousands of talented Armenian athlete participants. Dermirjian was also instrumental in the St. Vartan Armenian Church athletic team’s participation in various tournaments throughout the Western Diocese.
The luncheon began with a surprise—85-year-old Ed Baker ran into the church hall as a torch bearer. Olympic-themed music played in the background as Baker ran a lap around all the guest tables, replicating the Opening Ceremonies during the WAAA Games. Baker ran for St. Vartan Armenian Church for over three decades, and in 1979 set the record for the Masters mile, which still stands today.
Throughout the afternoon, many former athletes spoke with deep gratitude and appreciation for what Richard meant to them. Steven Donikian served as event MC, and provided great commentary as a former athlete himself.
The first speaker was Jack Papazian, who, along with his brother George, was instrumental in encouraging Demirjian to start a basketball program and competition back in the 1960’s. Jack paid tribute to Richard and expressed how much of an impact he made on his life.
Other speakers included Judy Rejebian, who held the world record for the pentathlon at age 13; David Madajian, who spoke about his years running track and reflecting on fond memories spending holidays with the Dermirjians; Van Der Mugrdechian, who traveled from Fresno with lots of photos and memorabilia in tow from past competitions; and Brian Babayans from Los Angeles, who let Richard know how much he impacted the lives of him and his brother, and how Richard was instrumental in getting them both involved in the Armenian community. Ken Thompson, a sharp-shooter on the basketball court, reminisced about his years of playing under Demirjian, and lifelong friendships he created through competition.
A special video tribute was played from St. Vartan’s own, Matt Vasgersian, who offered well wishes to Dermirjian. Matt is currently a commentator with ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and the MLB Network, and was a neighbor to Demirjian as a child.
Janet Demirjian Schmid, Richard’s daughter, presented a poignant tribute to both her parents, and provided heartwarming anecdotes about growing up in a household surrounded by Armenian athletics 24/7.
Richard, along with his wife Dottie, soaked in all the accolades and loved seeing so many former athletes together in one place. The afternoon ended with remarks from Richard, who held back tears as he looked into the room and was filled with much pride, joy and gratitude.
Before the program concluded, Father Hovel Ohanyan, Parish Priest at St. Vartan Armenian Church, and Nazar Jindoian, Parish Council Chairman, presented Richard with a certificate announcing the newly established, Richard Demirjian Athletic Fund. All donations will go toward the athletic program at St. Vartan Church, to ensure his legacy continues.
A special thanks to the members of the organizing committee, which included Kim Bardakian, Yeghia Apkarian, Janet Demirjian Schmid, Annette Boyd Kevranian, Steven Donikian and Hagop Hakimian; and much appreciation to the St. Vartan Ladies Society, who lovingly prepared a delicious lunch for the guests.
Richard’s vision to bring Armenian athletes together to compete was successful. However, he accomplished so much more. He connected Armenians from the Bay Area and beyond, cultivating lifelong friendships and memories that will last for generations, as witnessed in the overflowing hall on June 2 in Oakland.
Thank you, Richard!
Richard was born on a farm outside Byron, Michigan to Sarkis and Kaden Demirjian, along with his two brothers and sister. He served in the U.S. Army and was headquartered in Paris, France. After his time in the Army, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit, graduating in 1951 with a degree in Business Administration.
Upon graduation, he worked at his brother’s shop, learning the precision, hard-chrome plating trade, which he eventually brought to California, where he opened a similar business in Oakland.
Richard had always known Dottie Vahratian from the Detroit Armenian community, where she was also a stand-out track star at Commerce High School. They married in 1952 and later moved to Oakland in 1960. Richard’s love of sports has always been deeply embedded in him. He was a freestyle swimmer in high school and college and also ran the mile in track.
In his spare time, Demirjian loves to dig up facts and write. He is the proud author of five books: Armenian-American/Canadian Who’s Who of Outstanding Athletes, Coaches and Sports Personalities 1906-1989 (1989); Triumph and Glory: Armenian World War II Heroes (1996); The Faces of Courage: Armenian World War II, Korea, and Vietnam Heroes (2003).
Never one to shy away from rolling up his sleeves and volunteering, Richard was an active member of Triple X Fraternity Oakland Chapter, AGBU, Knights of Vartan and served as a Parish Council member at St. Vartan Armenian Church.
Richard currently lives in Moraga, California, with his wife Dottie. He loves spending time with his loving family, which includes his two children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson. In his spare time, he and Dottie can be found watching their favorite teams—the Oakland A’s, Raiders and whatever college basketball team in playing!