Vartabedian: Kushigian Letter Stirs up Emotional Memories at Olympics

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—On the night that Harry Kushigian was honored as an Olympic King, he received an unexpected letter from his brother John—25 years after his death!

The letter came from Robert Avakian (no relation to Camp Haiastan) who held it all these years before bringing it to Providence for the Olympics. How it got into his hands was another matter.

A bicycle accident took Johnny’s life in 1984 at the tender age of 39. He was on his way to St. Vartanantz Church to do some work for the ARS with its senior citizens program. Johnny was a tireless worker for his church and community. He often spoke at ARS conventions and was the architect of senior programs in his city.

He had also organized a social group called ONE that predicated itself upon unity. Whatever could be done to erase divisions among Armenians, Johnny Kushigian was the motivation.

He had gone to Africa in 1977 and detailed his experiences in a letter he sent to his good friend Stepan Piligian. The two were connected fraternally through Camp Haiastan and the AYF. Actually, John was Stepan’s counselor when he was 12 years old and grew to respect his friend for the many Armenian virtues he perpetuated.

Stepan enjoyed the letter and thought it should be published for all to read. He sent it to Robert Avakian who, at the time, was publishing a magazine called “Road Hye-Lander,” which contained Armenian news in Rhode Island.

Somehow, the letter fell through the cracks and never got published. Avakian kept the letter tucked away in a drawer for 32 years before retrieving it this summer. Thinking Stepan would be at the Olympics, he brought the letter with him intending to return it.

Inside a crowded hall filled with AYF alumni with music blaring, Avakian pulled Stepan aside and handed over the Kushigian letter from 1977. The moment practically coincided with the introduction of the Kings and Queens. There to receive his gold medal was Harry Kushigian—Johnny’s brother—who knew nothing about the letter until he was approached by Stepan.

The emotion that followed was so thick, you could cut it with a knife.

“My brother was there in spirit to help me celebrate the greatest moment of my AYF life,” said Harry, a community activist. “My brother’s name comes up so many times. The legacy he left behind remains uppermost in my mind. I must put myself aside for my brother. It supersedes anything I could have won, any honor bestowed, even being named Olympic King.”

When Harry was pounding bodies on the gridiron for Boston College, his brother was always there to lend support. They were two years apart in age.

“He used to drive my mother to the BC games and she would always bake choreg for the game,” Harry recalled. “She’d stand there with Johnny and pass out choreg to the players and Jesuit priests.”

Johnny was a friend to those who had no friend, one and all. He embodied the very essence of that kid on his way to Camp Haiastan.

“He was special—a Pied Piper with kids,” remembered Sona (Babayan) Petrossian. “Johnny sang in the choir with my sister Tamar. He truly loved life.”

This story culminates with a letter Stepan sent Harry expressing his thoughts.

“The events surrounding this letter were no coincidence,” Stepan wrote. “It was part of God’s plan for you and I to feel John’s spirit through God. I am so thankful to have been a small part of this. To see the joy on your face was a beautiful thing to behold.”

“When our paths crossed, your brother always had a lasting impact,” Stepan continued. “It was God’s plan to become a part of this Olympics and the people he so dearly loved in Providence—during a year in which you were honored as King. Indeed, this was no coincidence, but a miracle. The honor and love that you have given your brother is something we all admire.”


Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.

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1 Comment

  1. I lived across the street from John and we were friends from 4th grade on. I went to many Armenian dances and picnics and even to the Olympics one year. I think of him often.

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