By Ruth Thomasian
Photography and writing bring people together as was the case with Tom and me—he, a journalist/photographer, and me, a photo historian.
For many years I had read and admired his work from a distance before we connected on a professional level. He, as did I, lived a very full life. The tripod of his life was his family, his work as a journalist at the Haverhill Gazette, and his Armenian heritage and identity, which he shared in his bylined Armenian Weekly articles. For four score and more years, he covered a wide range of Armenian events—political, social, and cultural—for the Weekly as an unpaid professional reporter. After his 40-year stint at the Gazette (1966-2006), he became even more wildly read in all the Armenian papers, writing human-interest stories as he met people who had a story to tell. Every week one could read many of his bi-lined pieces in all the Armenian newspapers and online.
Tom was fascinated by, and curious about all of life’s mountains and valleys. When he was diagnosed with cancer in February 2016, he did not keep it a secret. He wrote about it, talked about it, and let the whole world know how he, as well as others, were dealing with it, so that we all could learn from each other. Nothing to be shy or reticent about. This is life, and he was a reporter. What better story for connecting the journalist with the people.
In 2010, I asked Tom to join Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives’ Board of Directors, and without hesitation, he said, “Yes!” He brought his expertise and enthusiasm to the organization. As we all know, his camera was part of his body, and his words gushed out when his eyes identified a story to tell. He was a perfect fit for Project SAVE Archives. He connected us with programs he was involved in and asked us to join him, everything from his Armenian Genocide teaching in public schools to speaking with his St. Gregory Armenian Church seniors’ Avak group about preserving their photographs. Tom was a communicator, a believer in spreading knowledge through the written and spoken word, and, of course, through the visual image.
Tom instinctively understood the historic value of photographs, being a photographer himself. But I think he was further inspired by their power when he sat down with me to document his own personal family photographs with the tape recorder running. He told me the stories that went with each and every one of his photographs. Of special interest were the photos he shot when he took a year off from his studies at Boston University to live at the Armenian Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna. He got a very personal inside look at monastic life. With a name like “Vartabedian” (vartabed in Armenian is a scholar, celibate priest), the vartabeds welcomed him with open arms as a very potential candidate for the priesthood—that next generation. But Tom had other plans for himself. Back to Boston and college he went, having become very proficient in the Armenian language, and having developed his very special Armenian heartbeat. He was on his way to becoming a cultural ambassador for the Armenian people.
I visited Tom on several occasions during his illness. The first time was when he was an outpatient at Dana Farber for his chemo infusions, which generally lasted several hours. He enjoyed passing those hours with family and friends. However, that particular day, the doctor determined that Tom’s white blood cell count was too low to have the chemical infusion. So Tom and Nancy (his wife), instead of going home right away, sat in the waiting room with me, and we visited. Tom related with glee that one week he had worn his Armenian flag tee shirt into Dana Farber, which attracted the attention of another patient who was Armenian. That made Tom’s day. When he was hospitalized during his final weeks, he was ever thinking of the future—his grandchildren, his Sunday school students—who would be there to teach them, he worried—and the next special event at Project SAVE for 2017.
Tom, you are ever in our hearts, and we will always remember you at Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives.