By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN — Ararat Lodge Number 1 of the Knights of Vartan acknowledged leaders in the Armenian community and in its own organizations through its 2015 awards dinner at the Oakley Country Club on November 6, at which more than 130 guests were present.
Ara Balikian welcomed guests as the master of ceremonies, and later gave the closing talk of the evening. Fr. Arakel Aljalian, pastor of St. James Armenian Church, blessed the gathering. Lodge Commander Armen Bogossian made introductory remarks about the various individuals being honored throughout the evening and the significance of the awards that they would receive. A number of last year’s award recipients served as presenters to the new honorees. The basic biographies of the awardees have already been summarized in a Mirror article of December 27, 2014.
The formal ceremonies began when Krikor Gennetian, honored as Ghevont Yeretz Faithful Knight in 2014, presented the 2015 award to George W. Haroutunian. Gennetian noted that Haroutunian was not only a great leader, but also was a person of great character highly respected by all Ararat Lodge members because of his helpfulness to others. Haroutunian served in US elite airborne forces in the Korean War and in the 10th Special Forces, and later worked 24 years with the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts in various positions in law enforcement.
While receiving his award, Haroutunian declared he joined the Knights in 1975, having already been a member of a Masonic order. He said, “Not to diminish the Masons, but I was finding a new home that had my culture and my people, and I wanted to help my people.” He joined Hayk Lodge, which lasted about 31 years and then was subsumed in Ararat Lodge in 1966.
This year, the Knights created a new award to recognize the activities of four young activists who successfully organized a vigil as part of the Boston Armenian community’s commemoration of the Armenian Genocide centennial. The award is named after the nephew of Vartan Mamigonian, who carried on his uncle’s struggle against outside domination in the fifth century. This first Vahan Mamigonian Young Leaders Award was given by Bogossian to Zareh Zurabyan, Armine Afeyan, Michael Demirchian and Karina Demurchyan. Only Zurabyan and Demirchian were present at the event, as the other two were traveling outside of the US at the time. Demirchian and Zurabyan declared their thanks for the award.
Bogosian then awarded the Mamigonian Family Community Leader Award to the Ashjian family, praising their dedication and sacrifice in the interests of the Armenian community, beginning with mother and father Alice and the late Joseph Ashjian. They instilled in their children the call to serve the community, and in turn their children, Apo (with wife Arlét), Sona, and Hagop (with wife Arpie), inspired countless others. A number of the Ashjian grandchildren, active in Armenian affairs in their own right, were present in the audience with their parents this evening.
Apo Ashjian, founder of the Sayat Nova Dance Company, spoke on behalf of the family. He noted that his father Joseph was a dedicated member of the Knights. He then modelled a helmet that he first wore as a youth during a play in which his father made him play the role of Vartan Mamigonian. Apo emotionally expressed his thanks for the award. His father used to tell him in Armenian, “do your honest and humble work, and do not expect anything else,” and he felt that this is true too for the Knights of Vartan. The Knights and Sayat Nova, he believed, have similar missions, helping the Armenian community in many creative ways, with Sayat Nova focusing on the field of dance, which is important in particular for the youth.
More than 400 youth have danced with Sayat Nova over the past decades, and during this process, they have learned about Armenian culture, music, history and current issues. When they stop dancing, Apo Ashjian said, they take away this knowledge with them, and can pass it down to future generations. Furthermore, Sayat Nova today has 64 original dance choreographies, more than even the Armenian State Dance Ensemble, with only 34.
He went on to recognize various individuals who played an important role in the dance ensemble, particularly in various technical aspects. He also pointed out that the other honorees of the evening also had a connection in various ways to Sayat Nova.
Bogossian then announced that playwright and teacher Joyce Van Dyke would receive the Shushanik Mamigonian Woman of the Year, and asked her friend Paul T. Boghosian to say a few words. Boghosian first recognized the role of Nigoghos Atinizian, a former commander of the Knights, who initiated the custom of the special gala awards evening, and congratulated the other awardees of the evening before speaking about Dr. Van Dyke’s accomplishments and plays.
He emphasized that Armenians must support culture, for culture will triumph over politics. Boghosian said, “One of the great virtues of having the Joyce Van Dykes in our community, and the Chris Bohjalians, and other writers, is that they give us an opportunity to reestablish our identity as to who we are as Armenians, what we stand for, where we came from, and it gives us the opportunity in an objective way to communicate our story to the following generation.”
Former Diroohie Donna Maria Deranian, last year’s recipient of the Woman of the Year Award, then formally delivered the award on behalf of the sisters of Arpie Lodge. Van Dyke expressed her thanks and related to the audience a little of her personal history, growing up in the San Francisco Bay area without an Armenian community except for her mother’s family. She became part of one only later. She said, “When I moved to the East Coast and eventually moved to the Boston area and started writing plays, the kinds of stories that I wanted to tell turned out to be Armenian stories. It wasn’t my intention….it just happened. Those were the stories that were really compelling to me. And it has continued to be true. … I decided once that if it is not about an Armenian story I am going to at least put the word Armenian into the text somewhere.”
She felt she came late to the experience of having an Armenian community, but, she said, “it is incredibly important to me.” She expressed her gratitude for the support by Armenians for her work, and in particular mentioned Eva Medzorian and Martin Deranian, neither of whom could be present that evening, as well as the Knights and Daughters of Vartan. Supporting the creation of an artistic work does not only give a loving and caring feeling to recipients like Van Dyke, but, she said, it generates new work. She closed by reiterating her thanks for the emotional and financial support that the Daughters and Knights have provided her in the past, as well as for the present honor.
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian was then invited to speak. Koutoujian said he had become a Knight almost 20 years ago. He praised the work of the Knights in unifying Armenians and supporting projects like Armenian Heritage Park, saying “When you think about the power that this group has had, it is second to none.” He congratulated many of the other awardees.
Charles Shahe Guleserian, 2014 Vartan Mamigonian Man of the Year, then presented the 2015 award to James Kalustian. He said he has known Kalustian for 12 years, beginning when they worked together on the Armenian Heritage Park project. After summarizing Kalustian’s biography, Guleserian explained that the Knights convinced Kalustian to join by pointing out that all the initial executives of the park were Knights, and they arranged for the initial funding of the park.
Kalustian responded with some humorous brief remarks and then congratulated the other honorees. He spoke of his connection to the Armenian Church, and his familial connection to survivors of the Armenian Genocide. He felt that the Armenian existence here in the US is an indication of triumph despite attempts to extinguish the Armenian people and its spirit.
Kalustian felt it was time for American Armenians to give thanks and give back, with their talents and gifts, and to look to the future. In particular, the underprivileged people of Armenia need help.
Kalustian said he was proud to be a Knight because “service to others is not an obligation—it is a privilege,” while he felt the movement to create Armenian Heritage Park, in which the Knights played an important role, was important not only because it helped Armenians remember who they are and give thanks to those who helped them. It was also important as a paradigm of cooperation among Armenian groups.
Next April will be the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Kalustian wondered, “Will we go back to quiet remembering, or will we build off the momentum of the 100th anniversary to move our community, our people and our church forward?” He felt that the challenge for the Knights and for the community at large is to work to become stronger, more united and more relevant than ever.
The final speaker was the Grand Commander of the Knights of Vartan, Steven Kradjian of San Diego. His presence was a pleasant surprise. He declared that among Armenians often helping others goes unobserved and unrecognized but “tonight was a very fitting recognition of service.”
Kradjian reported that the Knights at their July national convocation chose to honor the martyrs of 1915 for the centennial as “Man and Woman of the Year.” They commissioned a painting of the ascension to heaven of these martyrs from Samvel Marutyan of California, which they presented to Catholicos Karekin II in Echmiadzin on October 6. During the same trip, they were invited to meet with Diaspora Minister Hranoush Hakobyan. The latter asked the Knights to establish an office in Armenia, have a big meeting there in their own centennial of 2016, and expand their activities and presence in Armenia. This is now under consideration. Kradjian spoke further about the ongoing programs of the Knights in Armenia.
The children of Zangakner Performing Arts Ensemble, led by artistic director and conductor Hasmik Konjoyan, performed between the awards ceremonies to great applause. DJ Argishti (Chaparian) provided music for the evening, which concluded with dancing.
Daughters of Vartan Grand Matron Sona Manuelian was present in the audience. The 2015 Gala Awards Committee was co-chaired by Arakel H. Yacubian and Karnig G. Ostayan, with members Armen Bogossian, Bedros Geyoghlian, Artak Kalenjian, Daniel Markarian, Eric Markarian, Ashot Papoyan and Aleksan Yildizyan.