Sassounian: A Personal Tribute on the Passing of Kirk Kerkorian: an Extraordinary Man 

Since his passing on June 15, thousands of journalists have highlighted Kirk Kerkorian’s amazing business accomplishments and substantial charitable contributions. However, these journalists had never met this great man, as he rarely gave interviews to the media.

Kirk Kerkorian (1917-2015) (Photo: forbes.com)
Kirk Kerkorian (1917-2015) (Photo: forbes.com)

Having worked with Mr. Kerkorian for almost three decades as senior vice president of the Lincy Foundation and president of the United Armenian Fund, I would like to offer a personal tribute to this compassionate Armenian American and wonderful human being.

I remember vividly the first time I met Mr. Kerkorian. It was at a Beverly Hills restaurant in the mid-1980’s during a small gathering of wealthy Armenians who supported Gov. George Deukmejian’s reelection. I was there as editor of the California Courier newspaper. When I walked over to introduce myself, Mr. Kerkorian recognized me right away and told me that he was a regular reader of my weekly columns. I was greatly surprised and flattered…

The next time I met Mr. Kerkorian was in his Beverly Hills office on Nov. 1, 1989, 11 months after the devastating earthquake in Armenia. We discussed the possibility of forming a coalition of seven major Armenian-American organizations, including the Lincy Foundation, to airlift humanitarian aid to Armenia. Mr. Kerkorian offered to pay the full cost of transportation and went on to generously pledge to cover not only the cost of one airlift, but “all future airlifts as long as Armenia needed assistance.” Within a few days, the United Armenian Fund was born, which successfully delivered over the next 25 years $700 million of relief supplies to Armenia and Artsakh, on board 158 airlifts and 2,250 sea containers.

In 1998, Mr. Kerkorian invited me to travel with him to Armenia for his first trip, during which he pledged to then-President Robert Kocharian to allocate $100 million (raising it later to $242 million) to build or renovate tunnels, bridges, and dozens of schools throughout Armenia and 1 in Artsakh; hundreds of miles of highways, roads and streets; 34 cultural institutions and museums; 3,700 apartments in the earthquake zone; and $20 million of loans to small businesses. These projects not only dramatically improved Armenia’s infrastructure, but also provided much needed employment to more than 20,000 workers. Mr. Kerkorian asked me to supervise these projects, in my capacity as senior vice president of the Lincy Foundation.

Over the years, Mr. Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Armenians worldwide, including $14 million to provide heating oil for Armenia’s freezing population during the harsh winter of 1993, $4.5 million in 2006 to all 28 Armenian schools in Lebanon, and millions of dollars to the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund’s projects in Artsakh. It is estimated that from 1989 to 2011, the Lincy Foundation contributed over $1 billion, split equally between Armenian and non-Armenian charities.

In 2011, when the Lincy Foundation closed its doors, unfounded and false rumors began circulating about the supposed reasons for its closure. The fact is that Mr. Kerkorian had planned all along that at a certain advanced age he would no longer deal with the deluge of daily requests for funding from around the world and distribute the bulk of his wealth after his passing.

I would like to conclude by mentioning some of the likes and dislikes of this remarkable Armenian-American:

– Mr. Kerkorian detested the divisions among Armenians. It upset him to no end that Armenians could not get along with each other. He often said, “Why can’t they unite and march in the same direction?” He was pleased to see seven major Armenian-American organizations working together under the umbrella of the United Armenian Fund.

– He cared deeply about the destitute condition of the people in Armenia and was constantly worried about emigration. He sought to create jobs so Armenians won’t have to leave their homeland.

– He hated the limelight and never lent his name to any building or institution.

– He was extremely wealthy, yet lived very modestly and spoke gently and politely. He preferred that people address him as Kirk rather than Mr. Kerkorian.

Finally, no one had to prompt Kirk to donate money to worthy causes. He often volunteered to make large contributions without being asked.

The Armenian nation and the world owe him a great debt of gratitude.

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Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

14 Comments

  1. I is a great loss. You portrayed him so well Harout. I had the pleasure of meeting him some twenty years ago, in a very impromptu fashion, and his style is exactly how you described it : unpretentious, super polite , soft spoken and kindness in his eyes shining through ….

    Annie Nourian Alexandre

  2. if we heed his advice, “why can’t the Armenians unite and go the same direction” I believe it has already begun

  3. Kirk Kerkorian was self made and selfless. My mother’s family was the poorest in Fresno, except for Kirk’s. He literally fought his way to accomplishing the American dream and included as many as possible of his people and those in his communities in a generosity that was focused and intelligently delivered. Harut Sassounian was a critically important part of Kirk Kerkorian’s success in helping Armenia through difficult and challenging times. We are grateful and proud of both.

  4. Thank you, Harout, for this summary of Kerkorian’s charitable contributions and his personal attitude. We are so grateful and blessed to have had him among us. Thank you very much for being such an effective conduit for Kerkorian’s care and kindness.

  5. A real Armenian who stretched a hand to his nation when it was in need. He is a great example to all of us and mostly to some wealthy Armenians who do not give a penny to their nation

  6. I whish someone will count how many millions was used for cause it was donated and how many millions went to kocharian mafia’s pockets so called govermen.If only all that money which GREAT KIRK donateded to Armenia serve the cause,Armenia today could be one of the richest country in the world with its hard working people.Insted Armenia is bleeding today to deth.Rest in peace GREAT MAN!!!

  7. Thank you Harout for this moving tribute. It gives our fellow Armenians a different and previously unknown perspective of the many great deeds of Mr. Krekorian

  8. I never had the pleasure of meeting Kirk Kerkorian but had the great pleasure meeting you Harout in Sydney Australia. Thank you for this tribute for the great Armenian man, and the work and the Legacy that he left to us by his message “why Armenians can’t unite and go the same direction”. This is very meaningful to all of us and that day is not “too far” that Kirk’s pain becomes our nation’s reality. Harout thank you also to you for what you have done to your nation and thank you for your future work.

  9. Thank you Harout for this informative article about Kirk’s contributions to humanity. May he rest in peace. And finally diasporans should understand that aid to the homeland must be on people’s level not on government ‘s level to reach the needy and not to enrich individuals in leadership positions.

  10. What a great person you are Zohrab Bablian, Mr Harout and Mr Kirk Kerkorian. We need to follow people like you as examples. Love

  11. A well written article on a truely great Armenian, may he rest in peace. Kerkorian’s message for Armenian unity and generosity to our homeland and nation should set an example to all of us.

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