Two Pillars Keep Haigazian Standing Strong

Haigazian University would not be here today without the outstanding leadership it has had over the last 60 years. Two such passionate visionaries were Dr. John Markarian and Wilma Cholakian.

It was a memorable day in 1955 when John Markarian, a young tenured religion professor at La Fayette College in Pennsylvania, relinquished that position by accepting the invitation to serve as founding president of Haigazian College. History proved the decision providential.

Haigazian University benefactor Joyce Philibosian Stein with Dr. John Markarian, president, at his 90th birthday celebration
Haigazian University benefactor Joyce Philibosian Stein with Dr. John Markarian, president, at his 90th birthday celebration

Stephen Mehagian and his wife Mary, of Phoenix, Az., were the first to dream of the possibility of a college in Lebanon. Mary was the daughter of Dr. Armenag Haigazian, the martyred headmaster of the Jenanyan Apostolic Institute of Konia, Turkey. The Mehagians met with Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Philibosian of Philadelphia. They shared a vision for a college in Lebanon—Haigazian College.

Markarian arrived in Beirut with his wife and young daughter. With a faculty and staff of 12, and 50 students, a small family was formed. All were eager to embark on this new venture, and to face many challenges together. Fortunately, benefactors quickly recognized and addressed the needs for a school in the Middle East. Markarian’s first term as president lasted until June 1966. The expanded campus by then included the campus icon—the Mugar Building—complemented with the Aharonian, Philibosian, Heritage, and Mehagian Buildings.

Civil War would rage in Beirut for the next 10 years of Markarian’s presidency, from 1972 to 1982. Yet, this erudite pastor and educator provided a haven for students at Haigazian, even as bombs were falling and chaos reigned.

Markarian, and his courageous wife Inge, developed the strategy of loving the enemy with food and drink, not hostility. Their inspiration: Romans 12:20: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their head.” They fought the war from their dining room, not in the streets. They opened their doors to all—resurrecting, in this one institution, those colleges long lost in Turkey by the genocide.

With a student body representative of various religious and political leanings, Markarian’s unique form of diplomacy and understanding of students and various political factions was legendary. Haigazian, with a current student body of 950, is now one of the leading universities in the Middle East, and the only Armenian university in the diaspora. However, the former rule that “No qualified Armenian student is ever denied entrance” unfortunately no longer holds true. Many Armenian students, including some refugees, do not even apply as the $8,500 tuition is beyond their realm of possibility—a critical reason to raise funds for the continued mission of Haigazian’s remarkable vision.

Markarian’s experiences and influence over the years could fill a book; they do in his memoir, Thirsty Enemy, a testimony to his principle of “overcoming evil with good.” He is now 98 years old, and lives with Inge in West Pittston, Pa. His life-long passion for tennis and golf have subsided. His memories of Haigazian and the wonderful friendships made along the way are always present. One need only speak to him on the phone to hear his still-vibrant voice—recalling his wonderful, challenge-filled years at the university.

After Markarian’s final retirement, the university was left without a shepherd. However, during those crucial war years, Wilma Cholakian, administrative dean, became the quintessential hero of Haigazian University. She was absolutely fearless during Lebanon’s Civil War. Always in harm’s way, Cholakian served Haigazian as the intrepid administrative dean from 1985 to 1995. In these 10 years, she accomplished an amazing feat—moving the war-beleaguered university to Christian East Beirut. She accomplished all of this while at the same time maintaining a high level of academics in West Beirut.

Among many of her heroic efforts, Cholakian boldly secured the safety of Haigazian’s priceless Armenian Library. Prior to her role as administrative dean, she served as Haigazian’s registrar and academic dean. Her unwavering strength, energy, and determination held up the student body throughout their college experience. Indeed, Cholakian was the essence of Haigazian and will always be remembered with the greatest of admiration.

A 60th Anniversary Gala Celebration on Oct. 3 will officially launch a $6 million endowment fund expansion campaign for Haigazian University. Celebrations will continue after the performance with a Black Tie Gala Supper in the stunning Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.

For more information, call 1-844-809-4860 or visit

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.


  1. I had the privilage and honour to meet Dr Markarian and his lovely family at Haigazian in the early 60s and even be invited to their house for Christmas celebrations. Kindness and goodness just radiated through him.

  2. I lived in the same rooming house with Wilma in the late 60’s…She was also the Maid of Honor at my wedding in 1970..I unfortunately lost touch with her after she returned to the Middle East..I would like to know more about her passing..

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