By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN – Robert A. Semonian, known to all as Bob, is a sociable and outgoing man. He has a knack for making friends, and for connecting friends who might be able to help one another. As an Armenian, he has used his skills to help his fellow Armenians whenever possible, while pursuing success in work and American politics.
Semonian’s good friend Saro Khachikian, a real estate appraiser in Peabody, Mass., said, “Bob’s ability to see positive qualities in people has always amazed me. Identifying strengths in an individual is a key skill which he has mastered. He is also a virtuoso networker. The combination of these two qualities has produced valuable results over the years, as he has brought together numerous individuals capable of assisting one another. A positive attitude, a contagious smile, persistence and a wicked sense of humor are some of the tools utilized by this ‘Improper Bostonian’ [see below] to benefit his friends and the community.”
Semonian has been undergoing treatment for cancer since last October. He is facing it with optimism and courage. Fortunately, as his brother Leon Semonian pointed out, he has had a tremendous amount of support.
Semonian’s father came to the US from the Veri Tagh (Upper Quarter) of Kharpert prior to the Armenian Genocide, while his mother, born in the village of Hussenig, came later. His father lived in Boston, first running a restaurant and then a grocery store. Semonian’s mother’s family came to the US before the Armenian Genocide, but they had a thriving bakery back in their village which they did not want to give up. They stayed and were slaughtered, while his mother, an orphan, was brought to the US by her uncle to Rhode Island.
Semonian was born in Brighton, Mass., the youngest of four children. Though he knew some Armenian, his first language was English. The family stressed education. The oldest brother, Souren, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his sister, Grace (Ahmadjian), from Framingham State, his brother, Leon, from Suffolk University and Bob from the University of Miami.
Bob Semonian studied marketing at the university and began his first job at the Raytheon Company. He later worked for Philips and a few other companies. He worked as the head of cost accounting and accounts payable, and eventually went into sales as an energy lighting consultant and also sold security systems.
Meanwhile, Semonian’s nephew, Mark Semonian, launched the Improper Bostonian magazine in 1991. Semonian said, “I, his uncle, and his father put in the seed money. He ran it, printing 5,000 copies of the first issue as a tabloid, and went around to places to get ads.” The advertisements were often printed for free from big firms, but this gave the publication exposure. It got many independent writers. After some years, he decided to leave the magazine and moved to Cape Town, South Africa, and then New York. In 2003, Mark’s sister, Wendy Semonian Eppich, took as publisher while Bob and his brother Leon remained as owners.
Bob Semonian has been quite involved in the distribution of the magazine. The magazine has a readership audited at a figure of 560,000, and every two weeks 88,000-100,000 copies are printed. Bob picked the sites for the magazine stands, and worked at getting publicity by getting pictures of prominent politicians, like Clintons or Bushes, holding a copy of the Improper Bostonian, along with local congressmen or governors. Today the popular publication serves Bostonians as a guide to local entertainment and culture, while Bob serves as the magazine’s treasurer.
Aside from work, Semonian has always been very interested in politics — Republican politics in particular. In fact, he eventually switched his specialty to sales so that he could spend more time in politics.
Semonian explained, “I wanted to be involved. I believed in less government, with more left up to the individual.”
After college, he moved back to the Boston area and ran against an incumbent, the governor’s coordinator for Middlesex County, and beat him for the Massachusetts Republican State Committee (on which serve 40 men and 40 women, elected during the presidential primary). After his election, he was made deputy chairman of the party in charge of ethnic outreach and later became chairman of ethnic outreach.
Semonian said, “I appointed different people to head up groups like the Japanese Republicans.”
Around 20-25 ethnic groups are involved, and Semonian’s job was to try to get them to politically participate and to provide financial contributions.
For many years, Semonian continued to be elected to the state committee, and has been a delegate to eight national Republican National Committee conventions. He was Massachusetts state vice chairman for Ronald Reagan, and Nationalities Chairman in the state for him. Among other things, he got the world-class long-distance runner Alberto Salazar, who won the New York and Boston marathons several times, to endorse Reagan. He also persuaded him to do a jogging video with George Bush. Semonian was state chairman also for Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson’s presidential campaigns. Semonian at one point served as chairman of the Watertown Republican Town Committee.
Bob Avakian, a fellow Republican, said the following about Semonian: “He initiated the GOP candidacy of many office holders and activists, including Sen. Bob Hedlund, and was helpful to Rachel Kaprielian and many others. … As Buchanan’s state campaign manager he was vitally effective in building the organization here and overlapping into New Hampshire, where he won an upset victory in the GOP presidential primary. No one was more adept at structuring campaigns and identifying issues and strategies than Bob Semonian. He is known all over the country at the highest levels for his political sagacity and acumen.”
As a consequence of his political work, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appointed Semonian as a trustee at Massachusetts Bay Community College in the late 2000s, where he served as liaison to the foundation board, on the president’s evaluation committee and on the nominating committee.
President Reagan appointed Semonian to the Appalachian Scenic Trail Commission.
Semonian’s third passion, involvement with Armenians, was inculcated in him through his family. Semonian’s father was very active in the Armenian community. He became one of the founders of St. James Armenian Apostolic Church of Watertown. Bob remembers that “he had a tremendous voice.” He was a role model for his son, who while in Watertown High School, helped start the Armenian Church Youth Organization of American (ACYOA) Juniors, and organized Christmas tree sales, and a junior regional conference. They prepared a newsletter called the Golden Cross, which had ads.
Then when Semonian went to the University of Miami, though there were not that many Armenians in the university, there was a good size group living in the area, and there was an Armenian church. Therefore, he started a branch of the ACYOA there, and they published a newsletter called Miami Sunlight.
Semonian went on to volunteer with a lot of different Armenian organizations. He became the president of the local branch of the Armenian Students’ Association (ASA), and then the vice-president of the local board. At present he is a trustee of the national organization. He is also a member of the board of Luys, a scholarship foundation assisting students from Armenia at elite universities like Harvard and Oxford.
He has been deeply involved in the Knights of Vartan, and recruited as many as 80 new members, many of whom went on to play important roles in the organization. Semonian held various offices such as treasurer and secretary, and was honored by the Knights as Man of the Year.
He was involved in the Forum of Armenian Associations of Europe, which was established around 16 years ago to help Armenia, and attended its annual meetings while it was still active. Saro Khachikian recalls that he persuaded some 10 members of the Knights of Vartan Ararat Lodge (Cambridge, Mass.), including Khachikian, to attend its 2004 meeting in Vienna, Austria, which bolstered the work of the forum. Khachikian noted that one of the achievements of the forum was the election of an Armenian representative in the European Parliament in Brussels.
Semonian is today well known as the chairman of the speakers committee of the Men’s Club of St. James Armenian Church of Watertown. It is a popular program, often with several hundred people in attendance. He has gotten prominent speakers such as Ray Flynn, former mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican, Berj Najarian, chief of staff for Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, author and actor Eric Bogosian, Stephen Kurkjian of the Boston Globe and Judge Gabrielle Wolohojian of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
Fr. Arakel Aljalian, pastor of St. James, has known Semonian since becoming pastor of the church in 1999. He said: “Bob Semonian is a very dedicated person who has helped the Armenian Church greatly. He is very friendly and willing to help others. He wants to strengthen the attachment of prominent Armenians to their heritage and people by inviting them to speak at St. James, and to at the same time make other Armenians aware and proud of the achievements of such talented compatriots. Even while sick and in the hospital, he wanted to talk more about upcoming events for the church than his health. He has sacrificed his time and used his talent for the benefit of St. James.”
Semonian used his networking talents to help Armenia after the December 1988 earthquake. He connected a group of 30-35 non-Armenians in the medical field from Colorado with Dr. Vartkes Najarian in California, who in turn arranged for them to get free air travel through Sarkis Soghanalian. The latter ended up having problems getting permission for his flights from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so Semonian used his contacts with the Reagan and Bush administrations to expedite the flights.
After making over 30 calls in one day, with everyone promising to call back but never doing so, Semonian said, “I eventually reached someone who was meeting with President Bush. I said they should pull him out of the meeting, that a lot of my people are dying and heads will roll.” This finally got the desired result with the FAA. Soghanalian asked Semonian to accompany him to Armenia, and he did.
Semonian indirectly got the mayor of Boston involved, who raised money and gave various items to be shipped to Armenia. Later, Semonian helped get President George H. W. Bush to issue a letter recognizing the plight of the Karabagh Armenians.
Semonian was able to get eight US states to recognize the Armenian Genocide, including Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Vermont. He became acquainted with Democrats as well as Republicans since he would attend the national governors’ conferences frequently. He explained his modus operandi: “I would talk to the governor directly. I had six or seven more that I would have also gotten, like Mississippi, but then the State Department got wind of it and killed it.”
Semonian bewailed the Armenian community’s indifference to politics, and said that they are more interested in making money in business. Furthermore, he feels Armenians and their organizations in the US should be more bipartisan.
Despite all obstacles, Semonian continually attempts to get Armenians involved in politics, especially Republican politics, and get them appointed to board commissions and town offices. He said, “That is where you can really make a difference.” He encouraged Bob Avakian to run for office in Bedford, and as chairman of ethnic outreach for the Republic Party, got Avakian to be head of the Armenian section.
Avakian said, “He and I have had many experiences together on the national GOP scene and I can tell you that no one knew more elected officials and key operational people in the conservative political spectrum. He was the most underutilized individual in our community, although he was the greatest networked political individual — a great and unfortunate contradiction.”
At Republican National Conventions, Semonian brought all the Armenians together. There were only a handful, he related, a dozen at the most. People like George Deukmejian or Danny Tarkanian would be there, and sometimes by chance an Armenian from unlikely places like North Dakota. He also held fundraisers for some Armenian candidates in Watertown, like Danny Tarkanian.
As many friends keep visiting Semonian and bolster his spirits, he is getting stronger.