Retirement No Option for Sarkisians

ANDOVER, Mass.—Sarkis and Rita Sarkisian have found the perfect formula for perpetual youth in their retirement years.

Sarkis and Rita Sarkisian of Andover keep active by operating a driving range and hiring students.

Run an active business, hire students, and help local charities.

Thus far, it’s paying dividends for the couple as they open their driving range for the 17th year and soon answer the call for ice cream. The fact both are into their 70s pays no heed.

On a busy weekend, all 33 stalls are getting a workout. A putting green is mobilized. People are lined up at the window for ice cream, slush, and hot dogs. It’s become a recreational extravaganza inside a neighborhood setting that has long been their family home on Chandler Road.

It all started in 1932 when Ovogen Sarkisian came to the United States and purchased land in Andover to start his farming business. It was hard work, clearing the land and cutting down all the trees by hand. For many years, he farmed the land with his wife and three children, as did other Armenians in the area. For these newly arrived immigrants, it was a way of life in this land of opportunity.

After his death in 1968, son Sarkis took over the reins and, with his wife Rita, a Syrian immigrant, continued to farm the land. Over time, it became a successful greenhouse operation as families flocked here to purchase vegetables and flowers.

It went well for years until the chains began taking a bite out of their trade. So instead of packing it in, they took their 15 acres and turned it into a golfer’s haven. That was in 1995. Ten years later, they added ice cream. For four years, they’ve cultivated a “pick your own strawberries” sideline.

“We like the open land,” says Rita. “It’s all ours and we’re using it to our advantage. Our pleasure is everyone else’s joy.”

It wasn’t easy. At a time when both were approaching retirement, thoughts of retooling a business called for extensive planning, engineering, architects, loans, and equipment. It took years and plenty of chutzpah.

“Were we doing the right thing?” Sarkis wondered. “God gave us a nudge and we ran with it.”

A former Red Sox Hall-of-Famer hits balls here. Actor Robert Urich (“Spenser for Hire”) bought his flowers here. Parents of talk show host Jay Leno were regulars for years. PGA aspirant Rob Oppenheim comes here to sharpen his swing.

Armen Kourkounian takes a swing at his grandparents’ driving range.

A hawk might hover overhead. Deer and pheasants frolic through an opening in the woods. Wild turkeys strut along at will. Nature has a way of manifesting itself in this paradise setting.

It’s not so much the clientele who benefit from this enterprise as the help. The Sarkisians have made it a point to hire students. They’ve opened the door to kids in high school and college, many of them getting their start in the business world.

“We had one student who was so shy and withdrawn when he came here,” recalled Sarkis. “Each year, he gained confidence behind that counter. By the time he was a senior at Bentley University and been working here eight years, he became student council president of the college and presided over the entire student body. I like to think we played a small part in his development.”

Besides the responsibility and maturity, graduates have come away with letters of recommendation. The Sarkisians have been like surrogate parents to many. Nothing hits home more than having them pay a return visit as adults and recall their first job with fondness.

An organization called KIDS (Kids In Disability Sports) golfs here on Monday afternoons at half price. Youth camps converge during the summer months, run by the town’s Department of Community Services. Forty youngsters at a time fill the air with golf balls.

Business is never short of demand. The season runs about eight months with hardly a free day, except for rain. Shagging golf balls at 6 a.m. each day and keeping the grass trimmed at all times might have worn a lesser person.

“It’s been an endowment for our children,” they concur.

The Sarkisians celebrated their 50th anniversary last year, joined by their two children, Jeffrey and Christine Kourkounian, together with three grandchildren, Nyree, 8, Petra, 7, and Armen, 5. All play a role in the business.

Both are active members of St. Gregory Church in North Andover, relish their get-aways to a second home at Salisbury Beach, where they enjoy walking the shoreline, and joined a group of friends on a trip to Armenia in 2006. Travel and fitness are high on their social calendar when the occasion permits.

But business has its demands in this venture. The season runs eight months with hardly a free day except for rain. A golf pro is on hand to offer lessons. A well-lighted overhead keeps the place open through early evening.

“It’s given us a lot of flexibility in our lives,” the Sarkisians maintain. “At a time when there is a lot of difficulty in the world, you come here and find peace. We’re blessed in many ways.”

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