BY LILLIAN AVEDIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
NEW YORK—Thousands of friends and relatives filled the famed seats of Carnegie Hall in midtown Manhattan on April 13 to commemorate the transformational life of Armenian scholar, university leader and philanthropist Vartan Gregorian.
Gregorian crafted an astonishing legacy upon immigrating to the United States from Iran. He most recently served as president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York until his death one year ago at the age of 87.
Seventeen esteemed speakers, including politicians such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and entrepreneurs such as Moderna chairman Noubar Afeyan, echoed each other’s praise of Gregorian’s ingenuity and integrity during the three-hour service.
Many of the speakers remarked on Gregorian’s reverence for education, a faith he practiced as a distinguished historian and humanities scholar with a PhD from Stanford University and propagated as the president of Brown University. They recalled how Gregorian quoted eminent writers such as Persian and Arabic classical poets and French and Russian authors and philosophers in his everyday conversation. He also quoted aphorisms from his beloved grandmother Voski Mirzaian, who raised him and his younger sister Ojik.
“When you buy a horse, you buy both ends,” President Emeritus of the New York Botanical Garden Gregory Long recalled of his favorite of Gregorian’s grandmother’s aphorisms, to resounding, knowing laughter from the audience.
Gregorian’s love of literature would guide much of his life, from his bedroom in Tabriz filled to the brim with books to his post as president of the New York Public Library. Several of the speakers praised Gregorian’s transformation of the New York Public Library system as one of his crowning achievements.
Historian and biographer Robert Caro recounted how Gregorian inherited an insolvent and inefficient system, visible in the library’s dirty facade and the plywood used to create makeshift cubicles. With Gregorian’s fundraising talents, “the facade was cleaned, the plywood was gone, the marble had been shined up,” and “everything seemed to be running more efficiently.” Public faith in the library was restored, and the institution was saved for future generations of learners.
“I was going to say, which is true, that he left a great hole in our life. I was also going to say that he left a great hole in New York’s life, in New York’s history. But I realize just now that saying that would be wrong, because Greg didn’t leave a hole in New York’s history. He left a great monument: the New York Public Library,” Caro said.
The afternoon was brightened by laughter, as speakers recounted stories of the ubiquitous charm and wit of their dear friend Vartan, Greg or VG, as he was called.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever received newspaper clippings in the mail from VG,” Gregorian’s executive assistant Natasha Davids instructed. The audience erupted in laughter, as dozens of hands shot into the air.
Gregorian was notorious for sending excerpts from articles in the mail to his friends and family that he hoped they would find interesting or instructive, Davis explained. He continued this practice late into his life, collecting hundreds of newspaper clippings in trash bags to deliver later.
The service was also marked by reverential reflection on Gregorian’s successes, in spite of the hardships of his youth.
“Vartan did not live in the Paris of the Middle East,” said his lifelong friend Sahag Baghdassarian, with whom he was classmates at the Djemaran in Beirut. “He led such a life that would make the founders of Djemaran proud.”
Gregorian’s son Raffi spent his final days with his father discussing intergenerational trauma. Gregorian’s childhood was marked by pain and loss, including his mother’s death when he was only six and his father’s absence.
“I wondered why, in spite of everything, my father had not turned out a monster? Why didn’t he do the same things to us that his father did to him? That’s all he knew,” Raffi pondered during his eulogy.
“He said that despite his father’s failing, he had known his mother’s love. He had his sister Ojik, and his maternal grandmother Voski, his illiterate teacher of morals, dignity and integrity,” Raffi continued, recounting the community that surrounded his father throughout his life.
Raffi’s voice quavered, filling with tears, as he concluded by thanking his Papa for helping him “figure out how to break the intergenerational transmission of trauma.”
Armenian artists also paid homage to Gregorian’s life, reminding guests of his lifelong dedication to his Armenian heritage. The choir from St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral sang “Hayr Mer” (Lord’s Prayer) and “Soorp, Soorp” (Holy, Holy) during the prelude and “Ee verin Yerusaghem” (Requiem) and “Yerusaghem” (Praise the Lord) during the recessional. Operatic soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian performed “Der Voghormya” (Lord Have Mercy) by Gomidas Vartabed, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor Peter Balakian read an original poem celebrating Gregorian’s life.
“Vartan, courage teacher, exemplar of pride and ingenuity, American original, Armenian force, the only way we can thank you is to keep at it. Never say die. Anything is possible. Just keep going,” Balakian recited.