On July 14, NAASR announced with sadness the passing of Van M. Aroian of Worcester, MA, the senior member of its Board of Directors. He was 94 years old. Aroian was a Charter Member of NAASR, having joined in the organization’s first year, 1955, and served on its Board of Directors since 1992, including many years on the Executive Committee.
He is survived by Mary, his wife of more than 60 years, and sons Mihran and Raffi and their families, and nieces and nephews including fellow NAASR Board Member Bruce W. Roat, who recalled his uncle as “a strong, positive leader in my extended family and a great role model of the greatest generation.”
A funeral service was held on July 20 at Armenian Church of Our Saviour in Worcester. Burial was held at Hope Cemetery.
As a Board Member who was involved with NAASR from its very outset, Aroian brought a wealth of experience and knowledge but always wanted the organization to be looking ahead. Current NAASR Chairman Yervant Chekijian remarked that “Van…believed in active participation in NAASR’s administration, planning and vision for the future,” and indeed until recent physical setbacks slowed him down Van remained a highly involved member of the Board and a fixture at NAASR programs, logging many miles of driving between Worcester and Belmont.
Former NAASR Chairman Nancy Kolligian stated “Van meant so much to all of us—not only as a dedicated NAASR member and Board member but also as a man of keen intellect and knowledge who contributed so much to NAASR for decades. I valued him as a friend and mentor and will be forever grateful that he was a part of my life.”
NAASR Director of Academic Affairs Marc Mamigonian, who worked closely with Aroian for more than 20 years, called him a “stalwart” and “a man of ideas and of integrity, decency and commitment to what NAASR represents.”
Van M. Aroian was born in Boston on June 5, 1927 to Mihran and Satenig (Tashjian) Aroian, respectively of Kharpert and Hussenig, Historic Armenia. They married in Boston and raised Van and his sisters Alice and Myra. He earned a BA at Boston University and MA in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He was a fellow in Urban Geography at Clark University and an Urban Planner and Deputy Director of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority. He later joined his brother in-law Kevork and wife Mary Balekdjian Aroian in importing and retailing oriental carpets.
It was during Aroian’s time as a graduate student at Harvard that he met and studied with Prof. Richard Frye. In 1999, during the celebration of NAASR’s 45th anniversary, Aroian recalled: “As a graduate student in 1951-1952, I approached Dr. Frye and stated that it was time to get a professorship in the Armenian area. He agreed strongly and urged me to go out and see what could be done. I canvassed the gamut of political and religious leaders; the consensus was there, but the apparent mechanism was not. One day I entered the office to find Prof. Frye and Manoog Young and the other founders [Thomas Amirian and Arra Avakian] in serious discussion. … By 1954 NAASR was formed and in five short years by 1959 with the establishment of the Harvard chair, the dream of Professors Blake, who had passed on in 1950, and Frye who had carried the idea forward had been realized. The rest is history.”
Van was also active in the Worcester Historical Society, the Worcester Ecumenical Council and the Armenian Church of Our Savior in Worcester.
Characteristically, while he initially was skeptical of NAASR’s plans to build a new headquarters, Van came to embrace the idea and was a joyful presence at the grand opening in November 2019. NAASR Executive Director Sarah Ignatius remembered “how meaningful it was for Van along with his fellow NAASR elder statesman, the late Jack Medzorian, to be there, braving the cold to help cut the ribbon and inaugurate a new era for the organization he served so well and for so long.”
Van Mihrean Aroian passed away peacefully in Worcester, MA, on July 14, 2021.
Born in Boston in 1927, Van was the middle child of Mihran and Satenig Aroian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. He had two sisters, Alice (Roat) and Myra (Ellis). Van grew up in Boston’s South End and Jamaica Plain and worked on family farms around Sterling during the summers. Van was energetic, gregarious, generous and intelligent. He attended Boston Latin and graduated from Jamaica Plain High School, where he excelled in academics and track. He served in the US Army during World War II from 1945 to 1947, after which he received a BA in history from Boston University (Phi Beta Kappa) and Master’s in Middle East history from Harvard University. He also worked at the Arnold Arboretum and made many lifelong friends.
He lost both parents at a relatively early age. While remembering them with love and honor, he always looked to the present and not the past. His sharp mind led him to teaching and pursuit of a doctoral degree in geography at Clark University, moving to Worcester in 1959. He also met his love and lifelong companion and wife of 63 years, Mary Balekdjian. They married in 1957. He eventually became deputy director of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, where he dedicated his energies toward urban renewal, amelioration of poverty and revitalizing the city. Helping others and promoting justice and equality were among his passions. During this time, he and Mary raised two boys, Mihran and Raffi. They instilled in them his positivity, strong work ethic, dedication toward helping others, love for family and friends, their Armenian heritage, being inclusive and welcoming, a love of classical art and music, and going out for a drive or for ice cream.
His love of his Armenian heritage was always in the forefront, with more than 50 years of commitment to National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), where he served as treasurer and, until his death, board member. Van was dynamically involved in the Armenian community of Worcester: the Armenian Church of Our Saviour Parish Council, director of the Armenian Children’s Milk Fund, the Worcester Armenian Book Commemoration Committee exhibit to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Armenian book printing, and Project Save’s “Looking at Ourselves” with the Worcester Historical Society. In 1975, Van co-founded Oriental Rug Treasures, a store in Sudbury, MA, selling fine oriental rugs. With his integrity and honesty, he saw this as an opportunity to share his love of art and connecting with others.
Following his retirement, Van remained an amazing husband, father, grandfather and friend. Based on years of research at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Van published a scholarly piece in the Journal of Armenian Studies on the important contributions of Armenians to photography in the Ottoman Empire, giving seminars on the east and west coasts. Van was a Renaissance man with sharp wit, enormous strength and fighting spirit, generosity, wisdom, compassion, sparkling eyes, and boundless love and optimism.
The world has lost a great man. He is survived by his wife Mary, his sons Mihran and Raffi, their wives Karen and Jeanine Niyonzima, and his four grandchildren Hasmig, Ani, Diran and Zoe.