Worcester has a proud and exceptional Armenian history beginning in the late 1800s, having been referred to as “Little Kharpert” and in the late 1880s becoming home to the first Armenian Apostolic church and the first Armenian Protestant church in the United States. With so many Armenian immigrants drawn to the city because of substantial manufacturing work opportunities paying $1.75 a day, Worcester became the heart of Armenians in the United States and was often referred to as “Little Armenia.”
Based on how old you are and where you live, you have a different pronunciation of this proud Armenian community city in the heart of New England.
The very first Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) chapter in the United States and the chapter that won the first Olympics in 1934 is back in the spotlight. This is its year.
Finally, after a 48-year absence with COVID tossed in, “Worcester,” a profile in significant Armenian history, heritage and AYF dynamics, is the site of an AYF Olympics.
The Aram community is hosting an AYF Olympics for the fifth time.
Though not in the forefront in the recent past, the Worcester AYF in past Olympics competitions yielded five wins, including winning the first AYF Olympics in 1934, followed by wins in 1938, 1939, 1960 and 1961.
“We won the very first Olympics—truly part of our history, AYF history. Leo Siroonian, Pete Eknoian and Tony Margosian were Worcester Olympic standouts,” recalls Debbie Kachadoorian Salerno.
Let us add Deb’s father Jack Kachadoorian to that roster.
“It has been many years, but we still maintain a respect for our early days. We looked up to them as those who helped establish our community for us to grow up in,” stated Kachadoorian Salerno, herself a many-time standout peerless swimming gold medalist in the 60s, recording a nifty 61 points.
“In those days, the Worcester community was a family, whether we were related or not,” shared Barbara Goshgarian Berberian.
“We were walking distance from each other—Austin Street, Main Street, Chandler Street, Park Avenue, Belmont Street,” she adds with a fondness of recall.
Worcester and the AYF Olympics share a proud past.
The late 30s and the years following were formative Olympic years, and Worcester was in the thick of matters.
In the 60s and 70s, the strength and growth of the annual event saw Providence-Worcester duels that became the heart of Olympic competition.
“It was war. It was intense,” said Providence’s Garry Giragosian, a standout dash gold medalist and a longtime basketball coach.
Leo Derderian, who holds third place among men’s all-time scoring, summarized: “In those days, winning against Worcester was not easy with the likes of Armen Harootian and the Teshoians. Fraternalism was on hold over Labor Day. It took a lot of practice as these ultimately longtime friends took Olympics very seriously. Nish was outstanding in the weights. Gary Gosh in the dashes. We forged special relationships and lifetime friendships.”
Over many years, the Worcester AYF saw the likes of not-to-be forgotten participants wearing the Aram colors.
Worcester’s Olympic Royalty
Worcester Olympic standouts included three true athletes as kings and a truly classy athletic queen: Jack Kachadoorian, Leo Siroonian, Armen Harootian and Lucy Oulohojian Almasian.
Kachadoorian was the first ever Olympic king, picked in 1952 at the only Olympics held in neighboring Springfield, Massachusetts.
He was a top notch sprinter from 1938 to 1941 and a top scorer in 1939, partnering with Siroonian against defending Olympic champ, Brockton. Kachadoorian’s winning duels in the dashes with future brother-in-law Varad Varadian showed competition at its best, even at that point in time.
“Jack was a tremendous athlete, a natural. He hit the track with ultimate natural skill, raw talent. Jack was an AYF leader, not just in sports,” recalls Levon Barsamian.
It’s important to include that Jack’s wife, the former Maro Varadian of Providence, was a dominant Olympic participant for the Varantians, winning gold medals in the long jump and dashes in the 1940s. She was chosen Olympic queen at Providence Olympics in 2015. Her participation for so many years across many areas of the community could be a chapter of its own in Worcester and Providence history books.
Jack and Maro motivated their children—Harry, Levon and Deb—to participate in AYF.
Siroonian was chosen king at the Boston games in 1955.
Siroonian had participated in the Olympics from 1934 to 1938, winning dashes on five occasions and placing second four times for a total of 37 points.
Siroonian had been a truly dominant dash man in Worcester’s first win in 1934 and again in 1938, being top scorer and creating a team momentum that led to the Aram’s repeat win in 1939.
Siroonian was an outstanding athlete at South High School in football, track and basketball, earning all-scholastic recognition as a speedy halfback in football.
His parents and Barsamian’s parents were good friends.
“Leo Siroonian was one of our very first true AYF athletes. He was a natural with a lot of heart,” Barsamian recalls.
In an article written for the Weekly on the 1955 Olympics, Haig Varadian stated: “Leo had a victorious AYF spirit from 1934 to 1938. Worcester was one of the chapters constantly leading athletically, educationally and spiritually. Leo was one of the active and respected leaders.” He was referring to the roles of Kachadoorian, Siroonian, Peter Eknoian and Margosian as Aram chapter members, not just as athletes.
In 1974 (the last time Worcester hosted the Olympics), the Aram community honored Harootian and Oulohojian as king and queen.
Seventh on the all time men’s scoring list with 127.5 points, Harootian was high scorer five times. In 1960, he shared high scorer honors with all-time men’s scoring king Haig Bohigian.
“Armen was a natural athlete in the dashes, hurdles, long jump, high jump, mile,” described Goshgarian Berberian.
A Fitchburg State College varsity soccer and track standout and captain, Harootian motivated others to participate in the Olympics.
“Armen was one of our coaches. We did what he said. Gary Gosh was also really supportive, and he would pick us up to go to practice,” remembers Michelle Abladian Fashjian, who participated in dashes.
“There was not a lot of money then, and we used to share one pair of track shoes,” added Goshgarian Berberian.
The former “Debbie Kach” was quick to point out, “This was serious stuff with Armen and Gary—Olympic practices and Olympic weekend curfews—not just participation at the games.”
Ironically, the ladies agreed on the same favorite memory of Harootian and Olympics: “One year, we were talking about the next events under the stands when a gun went off. Armen went to the starter and asked if the event was the mile. Indeed it was. We had not heard the call. Others had started. Armen just took off and finally caught the others, winning the mile.”
In typical Armen Harootian manner, he remembers the special winning occasion with his trademark laugh: “Well, it was a great win, but if I had been trying to catch Haig Bohigian, it would have been different.”
Harootian’s soccer and track achievements brought him college conference all-star recognition and election to Fitchburg’s Athletic Hall of Fame for both those sports.
With Harootian a most suitable king in 1974, Oulohojian Almasian was clearly a most suitable queen.
“Class, a lot of class,” Barsamian recalls. Oulohojian Almasian finished with a total of 81 points, and after all these years, is still sitting comfortably in the top tier of alumni women’s competition. Her skill in shot put and the jumping events was unchallenged.
With Harootian and “Gary Gosh,” she was a team motivator.
Oulohojian Almasian is not only remembered for Olympics, but also her community activity and being the first female Camp Haiastan director.
Apples do not fall far from the tree.
Her daughter Ani stands firmly in fifth place among alumni women with 138 points. Her son Joe is ninth in men’s ranking with 111 points and paired up with Ken Topalian in the bobsled competition representing Armenia on the world stage in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
Today, granddaughter Melanie Almasian is collecting Olympic medals for North Andover AYF!
Worcester’s Olympic Standouts
It takes a team.
In the 1960s-70s, top point getters for the Arams included Gary Goshgarian (dashes), Cathy Harutunian (dashes, high jump), Nish Teshoian (field events), Louise Barsamian (dashes), the Kach kids—Deb, Harry and Levon—and Gil Markarian (100, 200 dashes).
Jack and Maro Kach’s kids carried on the family name in the games.
Debbie and Harry Kachadoorian were truly dominant in swimming.
Debbie was undefeated in her 25- and 50-yard swimming events. She finished with 61 points and was a high scorer in the 1966 games.
Her brother Harry won many gold medals in the 50 and 100 freestyle competitions.
Levon Kachadoorian added his name to the Aram scoreboard with Deb and Harry, earning medals consistently in the sprints—a skill which also brought him conference recognition as a receiver in football at Dean Junior College and Worcester State.
A few years later, Richie Tashjian dominated the distance events, and a balanced Worcester team also had Rich, Bob and Larry Ovian gaining medals in field events and middle distance events—typically competing against strong, consistent Providence competition.
Tashjian later became a consistent regular in the Boston Marathon.
Not a natural but a hard worker, Nancy Cotter would enter events so that Worcester would have participation at the games.
John Hoogasian was a gold medal force in field events and went on to coach field events at Holy Cross.
In the rain marred 2002 Philadelphia games, Worcester finished third, led by first year participants and top scorers Chris Tutunjian, who swept the distance events, and Meredith Davis, who collected golds in the dashes.
The following year at the 70th annual games in Providence, the host Green Machine won with the Arams taking their first runner-up trophy in 38 years and putting up a show with an astounding five athletes notching 15 points each.
They included newcomers Caitlin Shooshan in dashes and jumps; sprinter Nicole Chatelian; Nicole Taraverdian’s dominance and record breaking in the pool; and Kevin Kardian in men’s distance events.
Taraverdian’s 25-yard butterfly record stands today.
Add Justine Douvadjian’s pentathlon win, and Worcester was in one large spotlight with one of the chapter’s most significant Olympics achievements over the years.
In the 2004 first-time-ever Chicago held games, Chris and Lynne Tutunjian became the first sisters to each score 15 points in an Olympics, both in swimming dominance.
Lynne set the 25-yard freestyle mark and joined her mother Shooshan Kassabian Tutunjian—who held the 1600 meter run mark for women for many years—as the only parent-child simultaneous record holders of the Olympics.
Olympics and then some…
There have been many firsts for the Armenian community in Worcester over the years, an unbroken thread of nationalism, no matter the size of the community.
There’s no better person to close this portrait than Varsenig “Dusty” Dostourian Cotter, the chairperson of the first AYF chapter in the United States.
To this day, “Dusty” has been a high-energy spirit in the community for decades. Her contributions in the AYF, ARS and in the church over the decades have been immeasurable.
“We are thrilled to finally have Olympics back,” said Dostourian Cotter. “We have an incomparable history as an Armenian community and an AYF community. We are proud of our community, and you will feel that when you come to our Olympics. Veratartz!”