FRANKLIN, Mass.—After 33 years and many diversified roles, Pete Jelalian is calling it quits at Camp Haiastan, a place he affectionately calls “his second home.”
It’s been a long, rewarding, and extremely devoted career, beginning as a camper, then a counselor, lifeguard, director, and member of the Board of Directors—a tenure that’s spanned five decades from 1962 to 2008 in no short order.
His final order of business will take place in June when he orients a new director to take his place.
To the youngsters, he’s been known as “Baron Pete.” To the adults, an astute teacher and coach who has managed to “tough it out” when the going ever got to be a challenge.
“Within that time, the way we’ve done things has changed considerably due to liability and legal ramifications,” he brought out. “Not once do I ever recall having compromised a young camper’s welfare.”
Thousands have passed through the ranks, from the very shy to the more aggressive, ultimately benefiting by the experience of becoming good, healthy Armenians of strong mind and unquenchable spirit.
Jelalian was among the timid when he was first introduced to the camp. He remembers the moment as if it were yesterday.
“I was 9 and very confused about attending,” he recalled. “My father drove me from New York to Franklin and I was introduced to ‘Baron Harry’ (Kushigian). Once he showed me around, I was hooked. I didn’t want to leave.”
By the time he reached 15, Jelalian’s goals were pretty much decided. He wanted to become a physical education instructor and a camp director some day. His first stint as a staffer came in 1973 when he was hired as a lifeguard after becoming certified.
Of the 33 years, 15 of them were as director, including the last 8—longer than any predecessor. An Armenian “Mr. Chips” of sorts, Jelalian reached the point where the parents he was now greeting were campers from his first tenure as counselor/director.
What’s kept him connected for so long? Tradition! Devotion! Heritage!
“I believe that Armenian children can come to Franklin where they can play, learn, laugh, and bunk together,” he says. “Most importantly, making friends, solidifying friendships, and learning to become proud Armenians. I only hope that all my responsibilities met with satisfaction from the care and supervision I provided.”
Few were closer to Jelalian over that span than executive director Roy Callan. Their association dates back to 1974 when they were basketball rivals, Callan from Detroit and Jelelian from New York.
For five of those summers, they served as “Barons” together.
“Working with Peter as opposed to battling him on a basketball court has revealed the most wonderfully, caring, patient, and uplifting person to me,” said Callan. “I’ve marveled at his ability to lovingly attract and lead Armenian children and young adults to this camp every season.”
Callan described his contemporary as an “icon” of what any “Baron” at Camp Haiastan must be.
“These attributes are not long in number, neither are they complicated,” added Callan. “Yet, they have served to validate the reason why hundreds of children have returned season after season and why many have gone on to become his staff members. It’s also the reason why parents are bringing their children today. Peter finds a way to put the needs of others—campers, staffers, and parents alike—ahead of his own.”
The 56-year-old Jelalian hails from Nanuet, N.Y., where he resides with Christine, his wife of 16 years, who has taught school 23 years. They have a 14-year-old daughter Theresa who is quite the basketball player like her dad, who played four years for City College of New York.
Jelalian is into his 33rd year as a special education instructor in New York, having made a Who’s Who list of America’s best teachers. He holds a physical education degree from City College and two masters degrees—one from Herbert H. Lehman College in recreational supervision and another in special education from Fordham University.
Away from the classroom, you’ll often find Jelalian on a basketball court, either playing or coaching Armenian kids. He’s also served six years on the St. Vartanantz Church Board of Trustees.
As a player himself, he was laden with talent. Some may list him among the very best in AYF circles to ever play the game. Despite the advancing years, he can still overhaul the jet set at camp.
“The AYF has always been an important part of my life,” he points out. “Not only did it connect me with my history but allowed me to become a proud Armenian. It taught me organizational skills and how to manage people which were very important in my profession.”
The hiring of a non-Armenian staff recently was the result of changing times and certainly had the community buzzing with curiosity. Of the 44 staff members last summer, 11 of them were odars. Jelalian continued to run his usual “tight ship” and kept the camp family unified and functioning.
“I believe Camp Haiastan is the jewel of the Armenian Youth Federation,” he maintains. “In a perfect world, camp would be staffed by all AYF members and Armenians. This was not the case over the past couple years. The camp needed to fill key positions. Every Armenian who applied was hired last summer and we tried to accommodate them any way we could.”
Advertisements for an Armenian staff were widespread, from newspapers and conventions to word-of-mouth and camp graduates.
“If people don’t apply, we must go outside the lines to get qualified help,” he said. “It’s a commitment toward care, supervision, teaching, and implementing health and safety concerns. Due to liability, insurance, and potential legal ramifications, it’s important that those hired understand and carry out those responsibilities.”
The job carries its burden of sacrifice, putting your summer on hold for 10 weeks and being apart from your home and family life. The last four years, he’s had the pleasure of his daughter by his side while wife Christine made the trek every weekend from New York to rejoin the family.
The extreme side called for day and night surveillance, constant maintenance, making sure every program was fluid, every child and parent satisfied, every counselor focused, every suspicious activity addressed, and every detail implemented. Failure is never an option here.
The numbers show that enrollment has surpassed 700 over the summer. The institution of a day camp and a special teen camp has paid dividends.
There to assist every step of the way was Bob Avakian, another camping catalyst who’s been around for an eon in every capacity possible.
“He’s been my mentor, along with his wife Zabel,” says Jelalian. “They’ve understood and underscored the value of this camp. I’ll never forget their trust, confidence, and friendship over these past three decades.”
Jelalian’s reputation often precedes him. He was honeymooning in the Caribbean in 1992 and heard a voice calling after him: “Baron Pete.” He turned around to greet the Hajian family from Massachusetts.
Should you Google his name, you will find page after page of Jelalian and his relationship to Camp Haiastan.
Ask about his unsung heroes and he’s quick to answer the hundreds of counselors who’ve given up their summers at the camp. Jelalian also lauds the Camp Council and Board of Directors for their commitment and the many volunteers who have stepped forward to clean the camp as well as his parents for their part. All have performed yeoman’s work.
Among his proudest moments came in 1999 when he and good friend Kenny Sarajian were named AYF Olympic Kings. And, too, the many instances in which his nephews (Mark, Chris, and Eric Kanian) and daughter Theresa attended camp.
All in all, it’s been a good ride—a roller coaster one at times but always on a firm track heading home.
“I’ll return this summer to help make the transition a bit easier for the new director,” says Jelalian. “The amount of time is varied. It’s the new director’s show, not mine. I’ll be able to spend more time with my family.”