Al Bagian remained the best friend any ARS member could ever have. In what’s been primarily a woman’s organization for 100 years, he remained an infinite role model when it came to the organization.
Forget the gender or the politics, the social differences and other contrasts more suitable for men.
In his better days, he spent 30 years as a consummate servant in promoting the ARS cause and ensuring its stability at a time when it needed a boost.
Al passed away Feb. 25 in his beloved Philadelphia community where he was born, leaving behind a legacy of service, devotion, and philanthropy. Throughout his 92 years, he remained a legionnaire at salute, always attentive and model.
As chairman of the ARF Central Committee in 1972, he appointed himself as a representative of the ARS. Little did Unger Bagian realize at the time that it would turn into a tenured position that extended 30 years and well into his 80s.
Over that time, he never missed an ARS executive meeting while commuting to meetings from Philadelphia to Watertown, regardless of inclement weather, illness, or any other family commitment.
Never a plane, either. Always by car, leaving the house around 4 a.m. to arrive punctually by 9:30 a.m. He also attended every ARS Convention over that span. What he got in return was a good command of the Armenian language—something he never had when he first started.
“You might say the ARS developed into my passion,” he told me two years ago. “I believe in everything this organization does in terms of charity, education, and public service. I’m looking forward to the ARS centennial with extreme sentiment.”
It wasn’t exactly a breeze for Al. At the time, he was developing his own machinery business for the textile industry and attending night school at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, where he spent 12 years pursuing an engineering degree while working odd jobs during the day.
Nobody supported him more than Takouhi (Queenie), his faithful wife of 64 years—a fervent ARSer since 1943 in Philadelphia where she served several terms on the Central Executive and taught Armenian School over 60 years.
Together, they donated $50,000 to the ARS Mother-Child Clinic in Yerevan and served as benefactors to several other charities.
Al’s mother (Satenig Zoolalian) was an ARS member in 1914, no doubt influencing her son greatly. A photograph of her in a white Red Cross uniform always served as a family heirloom.
While speaking with Al, he’d recall the early years when he was a charter member of the Philadelphia “Sebouh” AYF and recruited 55 new members by banging on doors and sounding his trumpet.
He became the first AYFer to graduate into the ranks of the Gomideh—a plateau he often reminded others teetering in the ranks.
The ARS honored him with its Agnouni Award for outstanding service and dedication, named after its founder. He guided the organization professionally and put it in a sound financial position through shrewd investments. A lot of reorganization was taking place in the 1970s and Al remained in the thick of it.
“Eventually, the women liked what I did and appointed me to special committees,” he told me. “Most of them had to do with finances. Being the only guy in a roomful of women was a bit scary at times, but we all got along just fine with mutual respect.”
Al finally completed his tour of duty in 2002, the year he turned 85. Whether it was the travel that took its toll or simply the longevity factor, he left with a clear mind and a kind heart. The admiration in him remained steadfast to the very end.
“The ARS is an organization that has distinguished itself on every continent,” he reminded me. “Any organization that has survived a century must be doing something right. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into it. Without it, a lot of charitable causes would have been deprived.”
Al was also supportive of the Armenian Sisters Academy and Knar Choral Group.
Memorial services took place earlier this month at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, led by His Grace Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian, vicar general.
What people do for themselves usually dies with them. What they do for others, lives on after them. Al rewrote his own book of golden deeds when it came enhancing the Armenian Relief Society and bolstering his Gomideh. By that, he enjoyed the best of both worlds.
May his spirit guide us all toward greener pastures.