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The Critical Corner - 06/16/2003

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Book Review: "The Road to Home" by Vartan Gregorian

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 16, 2003

    "The Road to Home"
    Author: Vartan Gregorian
    Hardcover: 368 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.17 x 9.30 x 6.50
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster; (June 6, 2003)
    ISBN: 068480834X

By Bedros Afeyan

Vartan Gregorian's autobiographic tract, "A Road to Home," tells an
extraordinary story. It is the quintessential American Success Story.
Here is an Armenian immigrant who comes from a village in Northern
Iran, with his high school education completed in Jemaran, the
Armenian School of considerable note in Beirut, who earns a BA and a
PhD from Stanford (in history, specialty: Afghanistan), teaches at San
Francisco State and UT, Austin, ends up being Dean, Provost and almost
the President of U. Penn., rescues from imminent disaster and forges
the renaissance of the New York City public library system by assuming
its presidency for eight years, becomes the president of Brown
University for the next nine years and along the way, turns down the
Chancellorship of UC Berkeley, the Presidency of Columbia Univ., Univ.
of Miami, Univ. of Michigan, Univ. of Rochester and many others before
becoming president of the Carnegie Corporation.

That pinnacle of academic positions of leadership, the presidency of a
university, is not given freely to very many people. That privilege of
being the visionary leader of an institution of higher learning is
reserved to the best of the best and Vartan Gregorian has been one of
the most sought after candidates for that post over the last twenty
years being on almost everyone's short list! To say that he went from
humble beginnings to the very top of the intellectual life in America
is to considerably understate the miracles that have paved the way of
this deserving and gifted man's life journey. The perilous road that
has lead him to the zenith of what America has to offer a scholar is
depicted with great humility and panache in the pages of "The Road to
Home," a Simon and Schuster 2003 publication. Everyone interested in
how fate outstrips logic and predictability ought to read this book.
Here is the chronicle of how the brilliance of a kid is first noted
and appreciated enough somehow by a French consular Attache' - who
happens to be Armenian - and then rewarded and protected by a long
chain of benefactors and friends in the middle East and in America
both, catapulting a strange boy in great need for love and acceptance
to shine as an intellectual and scholar, to conquer the toughest of
tasks as an administrator, mediator, moderator, visionary, fund
raiser, diplomat, keeper of the faith, lighter of the torch of
knowledge and learning in Philadelphia, in New York City, in
Providence, Rhode Island and in New York City again where, since 1997,
he has been the president of the Carnegie Corporation which is a
charitable organization of great weight and import in the cultural
life of America and indeed the world. There are many immigrant stories
which make America's spinning roulette wheel of success seem
impossible to believe. Here is another such spectacular tale told by
the master communicator himself, the staunch believer in education,
the power of books, the beauty of scholarship and a man who has found
his niche in high society and academe in America against impossible

Imagine a young boy in Tabriz, Iran, born in 1934 to Armenian parents
in this Northern Province of Persia known as Azerbaijan. His mother,
Shoushig, dies when he is six and a half years old. Together with his
little sister Ojik, he is raised by their maternal grandmother, Voski
Mirzaian. Her's is the strongest and most lasting influence on this
poor boy's life. She is mother and father and grandmother to them
since their father is never around, working elsewhere, such as near
oil fields, to make ends meet, and is never a warm father anyway, even
when he is around. In fact, he is a strange, cold, distant, remarried
man who never encourages little Vartanig, never teaches him anything
(even though he gives private English lessons to others), never gives
him any sort of advice or love of any sort! These circumstances alone
ought to be enough to scar a man for life and make it hard for him to
have sufficient self-confidence to make it in this cruel world. Add to
that the changing of hands of their province between Persia and Soviet
Russia, the Second World War, depravity, being part of a Christian
Minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim city and country, poverty, lack
of food, clothing, proper shelter, constant peril and it is a miracle
indeed that this boy survived even. The details of these harrowing
times are depicted with great care and meticulous detail in the first
fifth of the book, The Road to Home. Here we have the familiar
positive influence of the Armenian Church, becoming an acolyte and
developing a very warm relationship with the steady, ancient tradition
of the liturgy and faith that is the hallmark of the Armenian
Apostolic tradition. The solace Vartanig derives from these
experiences acts as a counterweight to the lack of love and
nourishment at home under his father's roof with his younger wife who
cares very little for him or his sister. Vartan has his grandmother
who teaches him wisdom, myth, faith, morality, history and traditional
Armenian tall tales all brewed in one living magic cauldron. Stars and
winds and ghosts and other mythological figures intermingle and fire
up this precocious boy's imagination as a steady nightly diet
administered by his grandmother and her tender loving care. It is
remarkable how much of this he reproduces more than fifty years later
in the pages of his autobiography. His has a genuine and profound love
for his grandmother.  Plus, he is far too intelligent not to absorb
all he can learn from her about life and this world naturally. Vartan
grows and observes the changing world around him. Soviet communists
come and go, muslim extremism is always suspected to be a palpable
threat to the Armenians and to all Christian boys and girls in
particular. Pedophiliacs must be avoided and are rumored to be all
around. Street fights with Muslim boys are routine. Vartan reaches his
teen years, attending school with worn out shoes, without money to buy
books but able to read everything written in Armenian he can get his
hands on at the library of the Armenian church and community
center. He then starts to write for the Armenian newspaper "Alik" as
well about daily affairs and even deliver eulogies at the funeral of
important Armenian citizens of Tabriz. From these surroundings, he is
somehow able to extricate himself at the age of fifteen at the bold
suggestion of the French Vice-consul, Edgar Maloyan, who instructs him
he go to Beirut and attend high school at Jemaran.  The first turning
point or plot point of this story is his grandmother authorizing his
departure knowing that it is best for him and his future to leave
their village and embrace the larger world. The crown jewel of
Armenian schools in Beirut in the fifties with an emphasis on French
(and Arabic) instruction and a thorough Armenian education including
classical Armenian and Armenian history and culture beyond a normal
high school degree was Nshan Palanjian Jemaran. But such a school was
simply unreachable for a poor boy from Tabriz whose father would not
be of any help and who spoke no Arabic or French to begin with! But he
did manage to go to Beirut on his own with just $50 to his name, find
people to sponsor him, to take him under their wings, nurture him,
find money for him, donate food, arrange make shift dwelling at some
sort of "Hotel Luxe" until boarding school facilities were inaugurated
a few years hence, and even teach him French on the side so that he
could catch up and graduate a few years behind schedule but
brilliantly. This unlikely passage to Beirut and an institution of
higher learning makes Vartan think of the words of Graham Greene who
once said and he quotes: "There is always one moment in childhood when
the door opens and lets the future in." That was Vartan's moment.

It is at Jemaran that his knack for being noticed, appreciated, aided
and nurtured takes root in earnest. In Beirut, in the early and middle
nineteen fifties, around the intellectual community of Jemaran, many
notable Armenians take on his cause. Chief among them is Simon
Vratsian, the principal of the school. Vartan becomes one of the
unofficial secretaries of this honorable Armenian intellectual who was
the last prime minister of the first Armenian Republic before Armenia
fell into the clutches of the Soviet empire in 1920. Vartan reads and
learns all he can get his hands on at Jemaran. In addition, he writes
many of Vratsian's letters since Simon is almost blind by then. Vartan,
through this experience, if nothing else, becomes groomed for academic
administration since he is exposed to it at a very early age and in all
its multiple facets of fund raising and community affairs and public
relations and vision and rigor and all other aspects of pedagogy.
Vartan, in need of a father figure, in need of people to believe in him
and encourage him, finds many in Beirut and in Jemaran, all of which is
delicately and precisely depicted in The Road to Home. He completes the
entire venerable "Hayakidagan" (Armenology) course, reads voraciously,
learns about life in the fast and wild town which Beirut was in the
1950s and graduates with honors ready to be shipped out to the West
coast where he is accepted in Stanford. Le Petit Paris, as Beirut is
referred to, makes a man out of him and a man hungry for knowledge.

The next fifth of the book is about his spectacular career at Stanford
both as an undergraduate and graduate student. Again, his brilliance
and remarkable attributes are detected by professors who become his
champions for life! He is helped by these historians and scholars
throughout his academic journey. They see a future for him he cannot
even imagine and take it upon themselves to walk him through the steps
to achieve greatness! Vartan is appreciated and guided by giants in his
field who pave the way for him and are always rewarded by how well he
does, given these opportunities. Instead of being supported by Jemaran
throughout his stay at Stanford, he receives University support at the
end of two years, finishes his BA that quickly, and starts his graduate
program right then and there. He has a rich life at Stanford, which
molds him further as a man and as a scholar. He meets his future wife
there and marries her in such spectacular fashion that I do not want to
spoil it by paraphrasing the story here. You will have to read pages
132-135 to see for yourself. Clare Russell learns Armenian and becomes
his mate for life from that time on. Their's is a happy marriage and one
where the journey is shared and burdens distributed and hardships met
with equal courage and valor on both their parts.

And its not that Vartan does not put Clare in harm's way! For starters,
he receives a substantial travel and research grant to spend time in
London, Paris, Beirut, Kabul and Karachi. His aim is to gather the raw
data for his thesis on Afghanistan's transition to becoming a modern
state. He takes Clare along for this trip but she is already pregnant
so by the time they arrive in Beirut, she gives birth and stays there
while Vartan goes to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and back on his
own. This remarkable woman now has to fend for herself in a hotel room
(where the cockroaches are described in vivid detail in the book) with
a newborn son! She does so with the help of all the same cast of
characters associated with Jemaran and the thriving Armenian community
in Beirut when Vartan was there alone 6 years earlier. History repeats
itself, Vartan avails himself of the generosity and friendship of old
acquaintances and his research makes very good progress.

Back to California they come and a job as a history instructor at San
Francisco State University. Why? Because there are no jobs that can be
arranged at AUB or Jemaran in Beirut! Vartan would have loved staying
in Beirut. He tries and his meteoric rise to the top of US academic
circles is because there are no suitable teaching jobs for him in
Beirut! Lucky for us, one could say. Vartan faces the middle to late
sixties in San Francisco. A less than ideal choice given the turmoil at
the local Universities then, the hippy movement, the sit ins, the Black
Panthers, the anti-war movement... It is a mess and a new assistant
professor has to face it all in a hot seat that was SF State. Not as
bad as Berkeley, as the book explains, but close.

It is no surprise then that the newly minted PhD who is barely able to
make ends meet with an academic salary at a state school (living with a
wife and son) and teaching part time here and there including Stanford
and other colleges, welcomes the chance to go to the university of
Texas, after a short stint at UCLA and teach at a research university
with a graduate program and be a historian. His book "The Emergence of
Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946"
was just then accepted for publication by Stanford University press. In
the meantime, He visits Beirut again and Armenia and hopes to write a
book on the modern history of that country. Instead, he gets involved
in University politics down in Austin. He is asked to help the dean and
that work eventually lands him in the middle of political infighting
within factions of the faculty and the administration. The Road to Home
describes this in great detail in chapter 10. Vartan Gregorian, learns
to be an active player in University politics at UT. He then takes an
endowed chair in Armenian studies at U Penn. and escapes the firings
and turmoil that leave no friendly faces down in Texas. He also joins
the history department of this prestigious ivy league school and
embarks on the fast track career to high level university
administration. He first becomes the founding dean of the college of
arts and sciences at the age of thirty five! This is followed by heroic
efforts at organizing the university for the bicentennial of our nation
in 1976, a major fund raising campaign, and the attainment of the top
academic post of Provost. Dr. Gregorian learns what its like to deal
with the board of Trustees of a university and all the internal
politics and machinations that would make the chatter at the Tower of
Babel sound like a Gregorian Chant. He perseveres, helps solve many of
U Penn's problems and sets a very good course for the university. Alas,
there is opposition to his ascension to the post of President. In the
meantime, he agonizes over the offer of being Berkeley's Chancellor, a
lifelong dream of his and ultimate goal throughout his early academic
career. He decides to stay at Penn because he is told he should finish
what he started. He is told that he is a shoe in for the presidency. He
should just wait and assume the helm. Alas, he is blocked at the end
and many of the fat cats who are trustees of the university who do not
like him are, let us say, blue bloods, who do not believe he would have
the "social graces" (or the looks, perhaps) for such a job... Hmm...
racism? You bet! Discrimination against a darker skinned, curly haired,
short Armenian man whose brilliance and dedication and virtues they
could not see? Surely! Philadelphia is well depicted in this book as
being full of Mayflower syndrome suffering WASPs. Poor Vartan falls
victim to their ingrate state.

But, the star of this story ascends far beyond a stuffy old school's
board room antics and lands as the savior of the New York City Public
Library system. This eighty nine distinct branch or property system
which was at the verge of collapse and irreversible decay is
resurrected under the able leadership of Dr. Gregorian for eight long
years of fourteen hour days and double lunches and double dinners and
fund raising and consciousness raising activities and innovations and
vision setting leadership. At the completion of that renovation
campaign he finally accepts the presidency of an Ivy League School,
Brown University, in Providence Rhode Island. His nine years there
reorient that school towards a far more successful path and improve its
minority and gender distribution and hiring practices and many other
modern innovations that take Brown to a far higher ground of success
than it was in 1989 when Dr. Gregorian took over its helm.

The latest chapter in the career of this tireless and remarkable man
dedicated to academia, scholarship, libraries, books, teaching and a
life of the mind is to head up the Carnegie Corporation, which is a
charitable organization of the first caliber dedicated to the
betterment of the world through the dissemination of knowledge. Dr.
Gregorian is a happy man from all appearances. He is a tireless
advocate for causes he believes in with a passion. His enthusiasm is
contagious. He sets courses for action and follows through with them
till the end. He is a no nonsense achiever who has aided many a
worthwhile cause with absolute dedication and imperturbable resolve. He
has never rested on his laurels nor has he taken the easy way out.

One could imagine that being an Armenian and an immigrant gave Dr.
Gregorian the advantage over more traditional local talent. He had
something to prove and he was hungry throughout the journey. He
appreciated all that was done for him and he took none of it for
granted. He wanted to make his life mean something. He knew of the
Armenian genocide and the displacement of his people. He knew that an
Armenian owes his being alive to divine fate and that squandering his
life away and the opportunities so many had sacrificed so much to make
possible for him would be cruelly wasted if it were not his task to
make them all proud. As this book shows, one can not praise this
dedicated administrator enough for all the potential he has unleashed
in New York, Philadelphia and Rhode Island by untiring dedication and
a principled approach to the betterment of this land of freedom he has
adopted as his own.

My only criticism of the book is that it leaves so much out! There is
so much more one would have liked to hear him describe and discuss. For
instance, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, how did he perceive
the differences between the Armenians he met in Beirut from the Iranian
Armenians he knew back in Tabriz and Teheran? How about the Armenian
communities in the SF bay area and Philadelphia, NY and Providence? Any
differences and similarities there, he would care to dissect for us?
What happened to his book on Armenia? Are there notes left for that
work? His research and plans? Is that water under the bridge now? Did
he ever produce any graduate students of his own in Texas or U Penn?
What are his PhD students up to, if he has had any? That is, what is
his intellectual legacy as a scholar? And another thing, what does he
think of Afghanistan today? The book makes reference to 9-11 and to
unrelated speeches he has given in 2002. How about Afghanistan? He was,
after all, a world expert in this arena at one point not so long ago.
Similarly, what efforts has he made on behalf of the Armenian cause or
for free and independent Armenia since 1991? What are his views on how
Armenia's intellectual capital can be preserved or augmented? What can
we do and what course of action would he suggest given his vast
experience at administering universities and philanthropic
organizations? It would help a lot if he would write publicly and let
everyone know what he sees as the best course of action. Dr. Gregorian
is an asset of immeasurable proportions to a community that can only be
awed and proud to call him one of their own. In short, read The Road to
Home. Its message to all Armenians and Americans seems to be, you can
find a home (after all) if you keep your eyes open in this land of vast

Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on his personal web pages at:

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