Tom Vartabedian was a longtime columnist of The Armenian Weekly, who in many ways embodied the spirit of this 120-year-old newspaper. For forty-six years, from 1970 up until the day he died, he authored a weekly column called “Poor Tom’s Almanac.” Many of our readers today grew up reading his column.
Tom’s column started as an effort to “introduce some levity into the serious and often stoic world of journalism.” He was committed to the idea that real messages could reach readers without “all the doom and gloom” that too-often characterizes the modern news industry. Turns out he was right about the need for humor—our readers loved his weekly column.
Tom understood that to be Armenian was to be human. His articles often did not revolve around Armenian issues or interests, providing a refreshing break from the heavy topics that tend to befall our pages. Sometimes, like in “Thoughts to Ponder While Shaving,” they were rueful diatribes on everything from rigged community raffles to obnoxiously aggressive commercials on the television. Other weeks, they were philosophical ruminations on the virtues of deli food over posh fine dining.
Whether he was visiting his favorite, local diner, or teaching Armenian language classes at the local church, throughout his life, Tom held a deep reverence for his immediate surroundings—the people, places, and institutions that make up a community. And in journalism, he was no different. For nearly fifty years, he worked at the same regional newspaper, the Haverhill Gazette, in addition to writing weekly columns and acting as a New England correspondent for the Armenian Weekly.
To give you a sense for how rare this was, in his final column, written on the eve of his death after a year-long battle with cancer, he wrote, “I have often been told by others that my career as a journalist and photographer became stagnated and stale… Why would anybody spend a half century with one job, one paper? My response to that comment would be, “Why not?” If you really love your work and your environment, why change? Working in the city where I have lived was a true complement. I was always there for my children and wife… There’s something to be said for proximity.”
“If I can leave you with anything, please do not take our community for granted and get the most out of it. What you do for yourself invariably dies with you. What you do for others lives on and forms legacies.”
He approached community and youth events with a childlike wonder that seeped into every aspect of his coverage, be it photos or prose. His faithful annual coverage of the AYF Olympics are sorely missed.
Tom’s writings combine the deep sensitivity and brooding introspection of a philosopher, with the decisively sharp wit and finger-wagging sarcasm of a lifelong New Englander. His prose could be brutally honest and unapologetically direct. Nowhere was this more evident than when he began covering his illness in our pages shortly after he was diagnosed with liver cancer—but regardless of circumstance, Tom’s “cup-half-full” approach to life was unwavering. He could not in good conscience, even in the face of death, leave his readers on a “sour note.”
“Let us return to the positive,” he wrote in one article, after recounting the trials of his final days, “Every day you’re alive, feel the air you breathe. Take notice of the wonderful world around us. Cancer can kill a lot of people but it cannot cripple love, shatter hope, corrode faith, destroy peace or suppress our memories. To continue living in the face of adversity becomes a challenge — and a privilege.”
Much can be learned, about our paper, about journalism, and about life, by revisiting the writings of Tom Vartabedian. In the fall of 2018, in partnership with the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Eastern Region, the Armenian and Hairenik Weekly newspapers announced the launch of the Vartabedian Fellowship, a program founded in Tom’s name with the intention of investing in future generations of journalists in the Armenian Diaspora. We hope that doing so will preserve the commitment to humility, introspection, honesty and critical thinking that Tom brought to the world and, in particular, to our community.
Tom himself said it best: “If I can leave you with anything, please do not take our community for granted and get the most out of it. What you do for yourself invariably dies with you. What you do for others lives on and forms legacies.”