Richard Sarajian: New Jersey’s Man for All Seasons

Don’t go calling Richard Sarajian a community activist or anything of the sort…unless you want another point of view.

To his fellow Armenians, constituents, religious and political pundits, he’s simply one involved Armenian doing his job, not playing the role.

In retrospect, he’d rather dwell behind the scenes and leave the pomp and circumstance to others more glorified.

Richard Sarajian is congratulated after spending the past eight years on the AYF Olympics Governing Body. (Photo: Tamar Kanarian)
Richard Sarajian is congratulated after spending the past eight years on the AYF Olympics Governing Body. (Photo: Tamar Kanarian)

Yet, how can you negate someone who just finished an eight-year term on the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Olympics Governing Body; his sixth four-year term as an National Representative Assembly (NRA) delegate; four years as chairman of his beloved Sts. Vartanantz Church; Prelacy Council for a decade (three as chairman); much less a Prelacy World Delegate for 16 years; his years on the ARF Central Committee (including two as chairman), and yeoman’s work on the Armenian Youth Foundation and Camp Haiastan Board.

And don’t get the idea it’s all business, either. Consider the 15 years he has spent on his church’s sports association board and his 12 years as a coach—and you’ll get a well-rounded discussion.

It certainly upholds the age-old adage, “If you want to get a job done, give it to a busy volunteer.” With Sarajian, it’s just another day in paradise, another day as a conscientious and willing Armenian.

For that, applause must be made, but keep it soft.

It all started with AYF, along with an exceptional parental upbringing. Like us, Richard had his role models, people like Mal Varadian and Shant Chebookjian, who happened to be my AYF advisor in Somerville.

Sarajian goes back a few years to reminisce:

“In my first AYF Olympics in Springfield, Mal was working as an official and asked my name. When he found out who I was, he told me to say hello to my dad. Later, I learned what a great relationship Mal and my father had, starting when they organized the Juniors with Sossi Kadian and Uncle Bozo. Mal taught generations the family nature of the AYF and the importance of hard work for the AYF and community. It’s ironic that his son Mike (Varadian) and I, who ran against each other at the Junior Oympics, have been friends like our fathers were and now work side by side on Governing Body.”

Sarajian also lauded Shant Chebookjian for the impact he has made upon his personal life. “He was the scribe of the original Governing Body. He took the thoughts and ideas that Sonny Gavoor and Haig Varadian shared and he documented and organized those ideas so they could be passed down in the Governing Body handbook. I worked with him on that original book as Central Athletic Council.”

In many ways Sarajian was the link between generational leaders who helped shape and advance these Olympics. And now, with a full presence on Governing Body, he took the baton and ran with it the past eight years for the betterment of these games.

The memories are enough to fill a cornucopia. Watching four sons form their own relay team in 2012 would indeed be special for any dad, not to mention the heart-and-soul of a softball team that won a championship that year and others besides. Tough staying unbiased when you’re a proud dad but Sarajian did his best.

Son Ara becoming a go-to guy this year at Olympics while on AYF Central Executive was another reason to feel gratified, especially with Jersey the host chapter. No doubt, Ara’s three brothers were also complementary to its success, along with wife Nora, the daughter of my late pastor, Rev. Arshag Daghlian. To say Olympics was always a family affair is putting it mildly. It’s become a passion.

“I remember my parents taking us to Philly in 1963,” Sarajian traced back. “I was one of those people with a consecutive Olympics streak. I’ve only missed four since that time. I love watching my family and friends compete and reuniting with all of them.”

Any one Olympics stand out more than the others? That would be Los Angeles in 1972. He and his fellow Arsens hopped aboard a plane bound for the West Coast.

“The first time Jersey hosted an Olympics was in 1978,” Sarajian noted. “We had over 2,000 people at the dances. This past year, I was able to watch a new generation take over and run a very successful event.”

His role these eight years was multi-faceted. He ran tennis and the field events. At poolside, Sarajian worked with the place judge. This role will now be assumed by Rich Keshgegian.

Sarajian was not your typical Olympian athlete per say and he’ll candidly admit that. He ran the mile once and did a couple relays but that’s it. Wrestling was his sport in school.

As a member of the Central Athletic Council, he spent several Olympics during his AYF years in administration, collecting and reviewing applications, creating entry lists, doing the heats and seedings, then actually running the track portion of the event as “clerk of the course.”

New Jersey finished a solid third this year with 110.5 points — seven points away from the runner-up slot. Nice to win a title, but even better to host a successful event and finish well. A lot of these members were yeoman of the guard like Kyle Dinkjian, who worked shifts at 3-4 a.m., then ran a 2-mile race six hours later.

“They worked late into the night and some were working shifts between events, then had to compete,” Sarajian revealed. “They were exhausted. But they managed to forge ahead.”

Apart from his role in Armenian circles, Sarajian is a well-regard attorney since graduating in 1973 from Colgate University where he was an Alumni War Memorial scholar with a Juris Doctor. His practice emphasizes corporate planning, commercial law and real estate, and all aspects of commercial litigation. He is admitted to practice in the States of New York and New Jersey as well as the Federal Court.
The year was 1978 and a very young Ara Dinkjian was hired to play oud at an Olympics hookup. The job fell upon Richard Sarajian’s shoulders and both individuals never stopped. Dinkjian is still playing and Sarajian is still planning.

Now that he’s “officially” off Governing Body, what’s next for “Pasti,” (his Armenian nickname for lawyer which is short for “pastaban”)?

“I look forward to being a little less involved so I can spend more time watching and visiting with friends during Olympic weekends,” he says, with an obvious smile.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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