Vartabedian: The Hakob Karapents I Knew Best

The late Hakob Karapents was the type of guy who would never recognize his fame if the two were to meet on a side street in Watertown.

He was that modest, that laid back—an ordinary gent who was friend to all, stranger to none. Aside from being a prominent writer, perhaps the best of his kind, he was a genuine “pop” artist.

Just pop in anywhere and shoot the breeze, whether it was the agoump in Watertown, a lecture site, an outside cafe, or anywhere where two Armenians would gather.

At a time when William Saroyan died in 1981, the diaspora needed a writer in our midst—another who might never take Willie’s place but who could warm the heart with his stories and give us another literary jolt.

I called him Jack. It was less formal in the keeping, much the same way he preferred it. And no doubt, a jolt upon my own career as a journalist.

I can see him now, talking shop over a cup of Armenian coffee, or maybe a cold brew. The community was his oyster, the written word his pearl. We had formed a quartet of sorts, me, him, my buddy Vrej-Armen Artinian (another writer/editor with Horizon), and Jirair Gharibian, who brought you the Armenian Independent Broadcasting session based out of Boston.

With four people who seemed so journalistically correct, it was often difficult to get a word in edgewise. But we often deferred to Karapents, being the venerable spirit and all. When Jack spoke, people listened.

I would often chastise the man for being so long-winded with his words. He would admonish me for being so succinct. Maybe we both tried to strike a happy medium. In all sincerity, readers couldn’t get enough of the man. I often wondered what Saroyan must have thought of him.

I mentioned that to Karapents once. And he just smiled. He often patronized Willie in his thoughts, always a kind word for his colleague, but with no artifice in his presence. He was like Ararat or Antranig—larger than life.

I knew a children’s writer like that. John Bellairs wrote close to 20 books, all of them best-sellers in their realm. Some were made into movies and translated into different languages. He would walk the streets of my city, eat at Burger King, and nobody knew the man.

People outside his city considered him an icon. Those in Haverhill, Mass. knew him only as the pedestrian he was, dining in fast food joints and keeping a low profile.

Well, Jack was like that in many ways. He never sought the limelight. Instead, the limelight sought him and often missed the mark.

The reason I’m pounding away on the keyboard this day is because I feel good about Karapents and what’s being said and done about the man. In case you missed it, the Hamazkayin Cultural and Educational Society is organizing a scholarship fund in his memory, thanks to some motivation from his widow, Alice, who made a very wise choice at the time.

In lieu of flowers at the writer’s funeral, let the money go toward helping promising Armenian students. Maybe one of them could become another Karapents someday with the right motivation.

And so, on the 85th anniversary of his birth, we see a list of 50 recipients who benefitted from this cause: writers, poets, journalists, actors, and linguists. What an elite group! Forget the scholarship amount each received. To be mentioned in the same breath with Karapents was token enough.

I am also enamored by the fact the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF) marked this anniversary with a library collection of his works. Kudos here go to the Amaras Art Alliance, Armenian Society of Boston, Hamazkayin Boston Chapter, Armenian Independent Broadcasting of Boston, and Armenian Cultural Committee of Greater Boston.

It did my heart good to see people like Tatul Sonentz-Papazian, Dr. Vartan Matiossian, and Ani Arakelian rekindle the writer’s life in a Nov. 21 observance. All one really has to do is look up his name and a plethora of credits will explode upon the screen.

One other blurb caught my eye. It was Jack’s dream to have his works published in his beloved Armenia. The fact they were banned in Soviet Armenia among other Diasporan Armenian writers was indeed a travesty Karapents endured in silence until the year before his demise in 1994.

He would have been 85 today. I still see him with his flannel shirt, a cigarette smoldering in ash, mind swirling in thought, holding court among his cohorts in Watertown, a smile pursed on his lips while thinking ahead to his next story.

The coffee never stayed warm.

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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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