The following is adapted from remarks delivered on July 5, at Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church, Ridgefield, N.J.
As I drove to church this evening, I was frankly amazed by what I saw: throngs of people, assembled in lines that stretched outside and around the block. It was if the Mayor of Ridgefield had passed! Crazy perhaps, but ultimately fitting, because Mark was, in a sense, the mayor of our community. He seemingly knew everyone, had dealings with everyone, and through his hard work and commitment, drew the love and respect of nearly everyone.
I could tell you a hundred stories about Mark—some funny, some serious, some absurd, some uplifting, and more. I could share also my personal reflections of how he started as my athletic competitor, and gradually became my friend, colleague, unger, and finally, like a brother to me.
But I won’t go there, because as I look out upon those assembled here, I see dozens of people who knew Mark as well as I, if not better. I look forward to hearing all of your memories and reflections tomorrow, at the hokejash.
For the moment, I’d rather focus on those things that made Mark special, that make him worth celebrating—as a person, as a family man, and especially as a leader of our community. In the end, he was someone who made all of our lives better.
For most of us, the tendency is to view Mark as an immovable object. He had a strong personality with many likes and dislikes, mannerisms, a wicked sense of humor, unflagging loyalty to his friends and beliefs, and certainly many quotable (and unquotable) lines.
I now believe it’s a disservice to view him as an immovable object. Why? Because over 45+ years, I also saw a trajectory of growth, a continual expansion of his horizons and worldview. Let me explain.
Like many of our peers, we met playing sports, especially basketball, at an early age. But by our early teens, if not before, Mark developed into something else. He wasn’t just a gym-rat; he became something like a general manager of a ballclub—almost like the famous Red Auerbach. With his unique swagger and salesmanship, he began talking about how to organize players, teams, and schedules. He would brag especially about the great new players he would “discover” for the St. Illuminator’s basketball team. While these players sometimes weren’t all that great, in fact, Mark’s swagger and promotional sense left the rest of us reacting and off-balance.
As he grew into young adulthood, he became increasingly keen to community dynamics. He took pride in knowing who came from what family, who was a Malatiatsi, Kharpertsi, or Dikranagertsi, and over time enjoyed getting to know the community in all of its color and diversity. While he began as a dyed-in-the-wool Amerigahai, he gradually worked side-by-side with Armenians of all stripes—Beirutsis, Bargsgahais, people from our Dashnak community, people from the “other side,” and more. What’s more, he enjoyed it, absorbed it, took it all in.
Later, as he developed experience in the corporate world, Mark moved to another level. A born recruiter (which in fact became his profession), he had an uncanny sense of who to plug in where, and how to create a division of labor in our community activities. As time went on, he also took to building things—golf tournaments, raffles, cigar night fundraisers and more—that could create income streams and bases of support for our various organizations. Over time, a once-boisterous young man became less and less interested in winning arguments, and more and more interested in building things of lasting value.
But it didn’t stop there: He also grew and matured in other ways. In recent years, he joined groups like Homenetmen—which we couldn’t have imagined joining in the turbulent ‘70s and ‘80s, when there were culture clashes in our community and when we viewed such groups as Middle Eastern entities that had been “imported” into our community. By the early 2000s, Mark not only engaged with the Homenetmen, he embraced it and became a vital cog in its regional athletic programs up until today.
As he developed a family, Mark’s experience of parenting led him to value the importance of mentorship. Hence his various efforts—as coach, as youth advisor, or as “big brother”—in which he gravitated toward nurturing the youth growing up in our communities. In this, he reminded me greatly of another stalwart in New Jersey, someone who played a formative role for many of us a generation ago. That was the late Vaghinag Koroghlian. Both men truly enjoyed working with kids. Yes, it was hard work, but it was also their pride and joy. They absolutely loved it! And it showed in the level of satisfaction they took in their work.
Finally, in his later years—perhaps affected by a sense of his own mortality—Mark began to think about legacy, about what he would leave behind. Just the other day, we were speaking about his latest meeting with Camp Haiastan’s Board of Directors, where they reviewed a proposal to deliver two lectures to the campers about the history of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Olympics. Mind you, no one was more devoted to the Olympics than Mark. But in this case, his sense of proportion and priority was offended. “Two lectures about the AYF Olympics? Really? Isn’t one enough?” he exclaimed. “I also want my kids to learn about Karabagh, Javakhk, about the history of our country. That stuff is really important.” Again, these were comments we might not have heard 25 years ago. But I heard them now.
When I heard the news of Mark’s passing, I issued a primal scream. Literally. It felt like a big punch in the gut. From a community standpoint, this wasn’t just any loss; it was as if something had been torn away from our collective body. I’m sure others feel this way also.
But then I wondered, “Why? Why do I feel this way?” I mean, here was someone with serious health issues, who had already cheated death at least once. So, why all the commotion, surprise, pain, and anger? Now it’s clear to me. It’s because Mark intertwined with so many lives; because he was there—in a tangible way—for so many people; because there was so much he was involved in, on a daily basis. It’s simply amazing to recount all the activities he was meaningfully involved in. In fact, there were all sorts of plans still unfinished… I feel as if, in some way, he was just hitting his stride.
So how do we begin to compensate for the loss of this massive presence in our community? And how do we properly honor the legacy of our fallen unger? If you know Mark, the answer is simple: Pick up a shovel and get to work. If we want to honor his memory, then stop the excuses, get involved, and demand more of yourself. Do something, even if it isn’t at Mark’s high level. Our community’s life depends on your involvement, and it doesn’t matter how. Write a check, send your kids to Camp Haiastan, work for Hai Tahd, our church, and our community organizations. If each of us takes a piece, we will do Mark proud, and begin to fill the void he has left.
On behalf of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), let me offer our heartfelt condolences to Mark’s wife Nicole, his sons Armen and Shant, brother Richard and wife Vana, brother Avedis and wife Meganoush, his mother Rosemary, and the entire extended Alashaian and Stepanian families. Please understand that we are here for you, just as Mark was there for so many of us. May he rest in peace.