Leo Sarkisian could very well be a poster child for his generation, few that remain.
He speaks six languages, plays an intricate 2,000-year-old Middle Eastern instrument called the “kanoun” and could probably talk you under the table while sharing his World War II experiences.
He fought at Anzio—one of the bloodiest sieges in military conflict—and survived the ordeal as a member of the United States Army.
Leo spent 38 years with Edward R. Morrow on the “Voice of America” with a show called “Music Time in Africa”—which turned out to be the oldest English language music program in the country, taking him to every country on the African continent. When Morrow retired, Leo added another nine years to his tenure.
That was only the beginning of his sojourn, compounded by visits to 85 other countries throughout the world. As the Voice of America’s goodwill ambassador, Leo brought nations and people together in harmony. Sixty-eight years as a Foreign Services Officer attests to his durability.
He was 91 when he called it quits as an “ethnomusicologist.” Over time, he also played the lute, clarinet and flute with fellow band musicians. A thirst for language skills only enhanced his character.
What you don’t know about Leo Sarkisian is that he’s a local guy, raised and educated in the Merrimack Valley. He was born in Lawrence, graduated from Methuen High School and received a Fine Arts degree from the Vesper George School of Art in Boston.
Like so many others of his kind born to immigrant parents, money was tight. He had none. So he did the unthinkable. He banged on the door of an administrator and said he wanted to attend that school.
“I can’t afford it,” he told the authority. “But if you take a chance on me, you won’t be sorry.”
Leo sold them a sob story and the investment paid dividends. In the height of battle, all he had was a Number 2 pencil at his disposal. In bombed-out shelters and refuges, he picked up scraps of paper from the rubble and drew to his heart’s content. Who needed art supplies?
He sketched and sketched. Out of it came incredible works of art—so prominent, in fact, they’ve found their way to the Smithsonian and many other leading galleries in the world.
Had you attended any one of his recent exhibits including this one in North Andover, you would have done a double take, seriously. He calls it “Faces of Africa.”
The portfolios, housed inside his modest assisted-living apartment in Tewksbury, tell of life in Africa during the war: faces of children in distress and women in anxiety; and soldiers maintaining a safety net over the innocent populace.
“I was just a little Armenian farm boy out of Lawrence,” he tells you. “I’m very proud of my ethnic heritage. It makes me very happy to see my work and my history being relived.”
Shortly after his discharge, he attended an ethnic dance in Haverhill and wow! His eye catches a beautiful woman. He’s dressed in his dashing Army uniform and Mary came in her formal Navy blues. A match made in Disneyworld.
They married and now, 66 years later, they are still joined at the hip. You will not find one without the other. Love remains eternal with the Sarkisians.
“Our whole life has been one big dance,” he reflects. “We still put the music on and twirl around some. I have trouble keeping up with Mary.”
Did I mention that like him, she, too, was engaged in Military Intelligence? The work they did was covert, yet instrumental. One slip of the tongue could have been fatal.
I wanted an interview. For 50 years, I’ve been in this newspaper business and recognize a good human interest story when it pokes me in the nose. I didn’t have to go any further than my computer.
“You do e-mail?” he asked me. “I may have a little trouble hearing so computer is fine. I’m usually connected in the mornings.”
On this day in North Andover, a man sat at a table, admiring a pencil sketch in his hands. It was done in 1936 of his mom Nevart. For generations, it held a sacred place in his family.
The artist was—Leo Sarkisian. It was a graduation picture that appeared in a Methuen High yearbook and still held its age, long after her passing.
The man takes it all in stride. He looks upon it as just “another day in paradise.”
“I was once told that my life is like an African proverb,” he says. “When a door opens, you go inside. Our adventures have been the result of seizing opportunities. God bless this great country of America.”
GOD BLESS ……LEO ..and all the Armenians in the world .
Bravo , Leo you are immortal . Vatchik use to tell me so many stories of your days together at V. O A.
God bless you and Mary. Elyse Magarian
An amazing and enriched life for sure. I can’t even imagine what the generation who served in WWII saw and went through and still lived a vibrant life.