The spirit of the “Greats” inspires the present and the future

Steve Elmasian pictured during his formal remarks at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2021 AYF Olympics (Photo: Sona Gevorkian)

The following remarks were delivered during the AYF Olympics Opening Ceremonies on September 5, 2021 by Steve Elmasian as a representative of the Providence community’s family of organizations.

Your Eminence Archbishop Anoushavan, Der Kapriel, Der Shnork, Governor McKee, AYF Olympic kings and queens, Varadian Spirit Award winners, sister organizations, guests and last but certainly not least, this record number of athletes, 

Welcome to the Ocean State where we have one of the oldest Armenian communities in the country, and while small, we make up for that in our determination and our need to keep our traditions going for generations to come.

One hundred six years ago, while the Ottoman Turks were committing the first genocide of the 20th century, their leader Talaat Pasha said that fifty years from now there will no longer be an Armenian question. He figured we all would have melted into the new lands we were lucky to find a safe haven in. Wow was he wrong.

We have left our mark and continue to do so since we first arrived in 1882, when the Kazanjian brothers opened a business in Newport. Much of the information I am sharing today comes from AYF Alumni Olympic King Varoujan Karentz, and most of the people I will be naming went through the ranks of the Providence “Varantian” chapter of the AYF.

The first fully automated post office in the world is named after World War II hero Harry Kizirian, and so is an elementary school in Providence. A second elementary school is named in honor of Vartan Gregorian, former President of Brown University.

The oldest document found in the Providence Public Library is a leaf from an Armenian Bible that dates back to 1182.

Our monument to our Martyrs (Saints) is considered one of the top 10 of its kind in the world.

Our flag flies at every city and town hall in our state, along with the State House and Senate and House legislatures, every April 24th thanks to the hard work of the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of RI.

The huge Armenian flag hanging in the ballroom [of the RI Convention Center] was the brainchild of Kachig Topalian.

General Sebouh lived among us and ran a small store on Douglas Avenue on Smith Hill, where many of the first arrivals found a haven.

The Armenian Radio Hour, founded by Russell Gasparian and now run by his daughter Sonya Taraian, began in 1947 and is the longest running ethnic radio show in the country.

The first song played at the WaterFire in Providence at the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers was an Armenian one. Typically, a handful are played at each event. Last night’s [September 4] ceremonial lighting was done by House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian.

Our Armenian Veterans monument at the RI Veterans Memorial Cemetery is where we annually remember those who gave their lives for their new nation.

Armenian Heritage Park located in the heart of the old Armenian neighborhood, gifted to the city of Providence by Martha Aramian and her sisters, is where we meet every Memorial Day to remember those who came before us and settled these lands.

We have left our imprint in every field of art, science, athletics, administration, education, politics and daily life here:

  • Leo Sarkisian, for whom the ANCA internship program is named, was from here.
  • Arthur Gregian was a political activist whose voice penetrated your inner being when he spoke.
  • Justices like US Magistrate Jacob Hagopian and Haiganush Bedrosian, the first woman appointed to a judgeship position in our state. 
  • Beverly Najarian of recent memory was the director of administration for the state of Rhode Island.
  • David Tikoian rose to the rank of Major in the RI State Police.
  • Tom Ohanian wrote Lines in the Sand, a story on the Genocide, won an Emmy and an Academy Award and is here watching his daughter Eliz compete for our team.
  • Olympic king Ken Topalian and Joe Almasian competed in the world winter Olympics in Norway in 1994 representing the land of their grandparents. They were the first athletes to march in with the Armenian flag since the 1918 games in Belgium.
  • Charles Ajootian, king, held the state record in the shot put at 61 feet 8.5 inches for 50 years.
  • Manoog Kaprielian is a former president of the RI Vietnam Veterans. 
  • John Nazarian was president of RI College and the college’s performing arts center is named in his honor.
  • Osky Cascone, Camp nurse, was a direct descendant of Sebastatsi Murad.
  • Coach Richard Magarian – principal – led his Coventry High School teams to multiple New England wrestling titles.
  • John Takian was named potentate, the highest position of the Shriners. As a young man, he was told he would never get to the top of this organization and that there is no room there for Armenians.
  • Mark Mesrobian, businessman, is chairing his fifth Armenian Olympic games.
  • Haig Varadian, Olympic king and administrator, has the Track and Field named in his honor at the school he was the principal of in Cranston. He was instrumental in the creation of the Governing Body.
  • Ani Haroian, extraordinary political activist, is a recipient of the Mkhitar Gosh Medal, awarded in 2013 by President Serzh Sargsyan on the occasion of the 22nd anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Republic of Armenia at a dinner in Los Angeles organized by the ANCA-WR. She was the driving force behind Rhode Island being the first government in the world to recognize Artsakh.
  • Peter “DOC” Bedrosian, businessman and Olympic king, introduced swimming to the AYF Olympics.
  • Steve Mesrobian, king, has served on just about every committee that exists from the Camp Board to the Central Committee and the ANCA Eastern Region.
  • Melkon “Mal” Varadian, market owner and king, was one of three giants to create AYF Juniors.
  • George Aghjayan serves as chairman of the ARF Eastern Region Central Committee.
  • Carolyn Rafaelian is of Alex and Ani fame.
  • Aram Garabedian held multiple state offices and was the main engine behind getting the Armenian Genocide taught in our public school system 20 years ago.

To Mike Varadian, Ken Topalian, Steve Mesrobian, Nancy Nahigian, our new kings and queen, and to John Mangassarian, Shooshig Aghjayan and the recently passed Joyce Bagdasarian as our Varadian Spirit Award winners: huge congratulations.

Former Olympics Kings and Queens march in 2021 AYF Olympics Opening Ceremonies

It’d been 40 years of doing this “AYF Olympic Thing,” and for those who came before us – Mal, Haig and John Varadian, Doc Bedrosian, Anto Avakian, Paul Haroian Sr. and so many more – it’s those who will follow that is so encouraging. 

Working side by side with coaches Ken Topalian, Harry Garabedian and Bob Chevian, chapter president Nareg Mkrtschjan and athletic director Hagop Taraksian ensures us that we will continue to do our part as far as the AYF Olympics goes.

We welcome a healthy competition with our fellow AYF members from the east to the west coast and Canada. We will walk into the Grand Ball with our heads held high no matter where our team places. Our community and alumni expect a lot from us. Our success at these games is unprecedented. But the lessons in life we teach our members are of greater value. Our members have played a major role in making this weekend happen. Next year, that task will be lifted, and we will be back even bigger, stronger, faster and better when we all meet again in nearby Worcester.

Good luck to all the AYF athletes.

Tom Vartabedian, the modern-day William Saroyan, always said the best race he ever saw was the Armenian race. Let these games begin.

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Stephen Elmasian

Stephen Elmasian is the co-chair of ANC-RI. He recently retired as the fiscal manager for the RI Secretary of State.

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