Vartabedian: Making a New Acquaintance at Olympics

It’s not always the people you know that make an AYF Olympics. Sometimes it’s about those you don’t know.
As the saying goes, there are no strangers here, only friends waiting to meet. Just when you think you’ve met them all, along comes a new face. The hotel lobby is an ingenious obstacle course. They should offer a medal to the chap who can weave his way through the crowd with luggage in hand without stopping to greet at least one acquaintance.

There I was in Philly, my camera bag strapped around my shoulders, waiting to hop onto a school bus to transport me to softball. Out of the clear blue comes a voice, “Bus leaves in five minutes. All aboard, ready to go!”

The face looked familiar. If I didn’t know any better, I might have guessed it was Jack Papazian reincarnated. The resemblance was uncanny.

For those of you who didn’t know Jack, suffice it to say he was a Philly icon, much like Ben Franklin. You sort of connected him to the landscaping when it came to Armenian matters. Hard to believe the guy passed on a little more than a year ago and wouldn’t be around to see the Olympics once more in his backyard. If ever there was an AYF pioneer, it was this guy.

Now, this Papazian look-alike sits down beside me while I’m chatting with Detroit’s own Sonny Gavoor, another venerable AYF Olympian, who was seated just behind me.

He sticks out his hand to Sonny and says, “Hi, there. Gary Papazian. And your name is?”

“Gavoor. Sonny Gavoor.”

I couldn’t imagine anyone in Armenia America not knowing Gavoor. If anything, the bald pate and streamlined body would have given him away.

“Certainly recognize the name. Glad to make your acquaintance,” the man says.

“Any relation to Jack?” queries Gavoor.

“My brother. First time for me at an Olympics and they put me in charge of transportation. Jack would have been proud.”

Then he faces me and another introduction follows.

“Your name’s been around, too,” he continued. “Happy to meet you.”

Gary Papazian went on to say how he had never been to an Olympics and there was no time like the present to get involved. He’s also a trustee at his church and, you might say, “a late bloomer” in this ethnic Garden of Eden.

The place was jumping with Papazians and something told me that Jack’s spirit hovered over the city. Son David was doing his usual yeoman’s work as a Governing Body member in addition to serving as an advisor on the Steering Committee with Glenn Papazian.

And taking charge of the dances was Jack’s daughter, Cindy Papazian McHugh, joined by Carol Papazian on the adbook. Jack’s widow Armine showed up and was enamored by all her friends. It’s done her proud to see her family so involved. Jack would have loved that, too. He lived for moments like these.

In the grand scheme of things, we think of an Olympics as a place where medals are won and competition is fierce. We look at the agony of defeat and yes, the joy of victory. Sometimes, we tend to overemphasize the sport.

The larger picture is the friendships inculcated, the reunions held, the contacts being made, and the fraternalism borne which makes us such a viable community.

No way of telling how many relationships were formed at an Olympics over the past 77 years, but I’ll bet it’s a significant number. People I never expected to see showed up. Others whom I had figured to greet didn’t.

Every community has its catalysts, be it Providence, Merrimack Valley, Granite City, Detroit, or New Jersey. Large or small, atoms or molecules, together they form a legion. Once a year on Labor Day, all signposts point to the Olympics.

They hug, they kiss, they laugh, and they cry. They reminisce, rekindle the flame, refuel their jets with octane, and off they go, tanked up for another year. Sometimes, the juggernaut stalls along the way.

I think of people like John Baronian and Arthur Giragosian, others like Jimmy Tashjian and Popken Hachigian, Uncle Herman, Uncle Bozo, and Hagop Mouradian who laid out the groundwork for this extravaganza.

The best way to keep friendships from breaking is not to drop them. It takes an Olympics to keep us all aligned.

On this Labor Day weekend, in the city of brotherly love, Jack Papazian was looking down upon us with a smile.

Tom Vartabedian

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.
Tom Vartabedian

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  1. Wonderful story, as usual Tom. Your description of entering the hotel lobby was perfectly accurate. I may not have been to many olympics but enough to know the air was crackling with fraternal excitement. Thanks for recreating the scene to make me feel like I was actually there All the names you mentioned brought back so many memories.  Let’s create many more.

  2.   I wasn’t able to attend Olympics this year.. a family wedding in upstate New York. I have had the good fortune to attend a wide variety of events in the American Armenian community. There is nothing that compares with the Olympics for longevity, attendance and geographic diversity. It is simply a unique icon. I remember my parents taking us when we were kids and the same format continues today with generations participating. Last year in Providence , I won’t forget the look on the faces of a few friends who had not been to an Olympics before. The dances were huge and multi-generational. To think this has continued for 75 years. Incredible. That is nearly unprecedented in today’s world where tradition is viewed as regressive. Tom, you are so correct in your comment about the recharging effect that sustain friendships.

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