WORCESTER, Mass.—Alex Melkonian was special in many ways.
He was a consummate Armenian who wore a perpetual smile, embraced his family with boundless love, wrote poetry, played bocci, was a prized bowler, and won Olympic medals.
One other facet made him unique. He never allowed his Down’s Syndrome to become an obstacle. Nor discouragement to become despair. Far from it.
His death at the age of 37 left behind a testament that people with special needs were no more special than anybody else. And that physical obstacles, no matter how severe, were merely stumbling blocks that often become steppingstones to success.
Pure and simple, Alex loved life—and life loved him back. In his case, the condition made him better, not bitter.
“He was our guiding light and moral compass,” said his sister, Sharistan (Shari) Ardhaldjian. “Alec was Alec. To know him was to love him. He had a hug like a bear that would bring you out of a gloomy state into instant joy. He treated everyone including animals with the utmost respect.”
A full-page spread in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette showed a grinning Alec in conjunction with a story about a maintenance worker for U-Haul storage facility.
Alec took pride in his custodial duties, glad to be part of Corporate America and the paycheck he got in return. He had a friend to thank for the job from the Seven Hills Foundation in Worcester that served people with mental disabilities by offering services like employment.
“I sweep, mop, bug spray, and put maintenance tags on doors,” he told the reporter. “I help customers and sometimes they help me out.”
My first encounter with Alec came in 1982 when he was merely a youngster. There was this kid with the face of a clown. He stood at the starting line of an AYF Junior Olympics relay, ready to run.
“Go get ‘em, Alec,” his teammates encouraged. “Show them that you’re from Worcester.”
With as much exhilaration as one could muster, the youngster answered the gun, moving as fast as his nimble legs would carry him to the next leg where a teammate anxiously awaited.
By then, the other runners were approaching their way to the finish line. It didn’t really matter after all. Three teams had entered the 400 this particular day and because of Alec’s determination to compete, Worcester earned its points and a well-deserved ribbon.
The TV news stations this week were ablaze with news of a Down’s Syndrome athlete who served as the manager of his high school basketball team.
Into the game he went, his senior year, because a coach decided to give the kid a shot in the final game. He stood behind the arc and immediate threw up a three-point basket as the gym went wild. As if that wasn’t enough, he responded once again with another trey.
Alec also entered the baseball throw that day and was a fry cry from the winning distance of 186 feet. But he won the hearts of all those in attendance as each of his throws was better than the previous.
If there were ever a gold medal to be awarded in poetry-writing, Alec would be standing on a pedestal. The guy could write, one of the many gifts he possessed. He shared his prose posthumously. A memorial pamphlet distributed to sympathizers at his funeral contained an anthology of his best work.
“His love for Christmas was unending,” said his brother Charlie. “Alec often began counting down the days like a child. Our parents were great teachers. Alec embodied the true Christmas spirit of giving and strong family values. He really was Christmas. In his casket was placed an ornament with a black bear toting a Santa’s cap. The bear was waving and we couldn’t tell if he was waving hello or goodbye but he was very happy and celebratory. That was Alec.”
Also placed in his casket was a letter from his nine-year-old cousin he cherished, along with a Red Sox hat, his favorite team, and a Massachusetts Turnpike patch, a place he yearned to work like his dad. And there was the security blanket his baby sister stole out of his crib when he was an infant.
“You’d find him at Hye Time on Cape Cod collecting tickets and greeting people,” said his sister, Mara Dix. “He couldn’t wait for his break to do a little dancing. He loved spending vacations at our cabin in New York. Of all the games, Uno was his favorite. He was tough to beat.”
One of his best Armenian buddies was Ara Krikorian. They were the mirror image of one another, Ara being a Down’s boy himself. They hit it off like nobody’s business. Whenever the two would meet at AYF affairs, they would light up the room, hit the dance floor together, and earn the praise of those around them.
Whether it was an ocean or pool, Alec didn’t discriminate. He loved the water and would swim for hours. They still talk about the night he jumped over the fence at camp to go swimming, only to be caught by counselor Greg Krikorian.
Tragedy struck when both his parents died within five years of one another. John and Alice (Shrestinian) Melkonian were impeccable caregivers to their son, bent on inculcating a normal lifestyle, before their respective deaths in 2000 and 2005.
Alec lived with his older brother Charlie in the house where they were both raised, spending much time with his Aunt Rose who dwelled upstairs.
He never forgot a birthday, his or anybody else’s, and always responded with a card or telephone call. He was proud to be an uncle and more recently a great-uncle.
In his own words, inside the memorial pamphlet that proved his legacy, a simple verse said it all:
“Open your dreams … to your heart … to me …with love.”
God bless you Alec for making our lives all the richer.