By Ellie Oleson Correspondent
James and Alice Walker of Oxford. Mrs. Walker’s parents escaped from Armenia, but other family members were killed by the Turks… Two of the 1.5 million Armenian Christians slaughtered by Turkish Muslims between 1915 and 1922 were grandparents of local resident Alice Kulungian Walker, 85, the town’s first female member of the Board of Selectmen. Others lost were uncles, aunts and cousins. “I’m first-generation American. My parents escaped from Armenia. Their families didn’t survive,” Mrs. Walker said.
James and Alice Walker of Oxford. Mrs. Walker’s parents escaped from Armenia, but other family members were killed by the Turks.
(T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON)
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OXFORD — Two of the 1.5 million Armenian Christians slaughtered by Turkish Muslims between 1915 and 1922 were grandparents of local resident Alice Kulungian Walker, 85, the town’s first female member of the Board of Selectmen. Others lost were uncles, aunts and cousins.
“I’m first-generation American. My parents escaped from Armenia. Their families didn’t survive,” Mrs. Walker said.
When she was honored with flowers at this year’s annual town meeting for her years of service to this community, the town was recognizing the value of each individual, which was not recognized in Armenia a century ago, she said.
Mrs. Walker and her husband of 63 years, James H. Walker, 93, live at 568 Main St., where they raised their four sons and multiple foster children and supplied the community with flowers and plants grown on their home farm, which came to be known as Walkers’ Greenery.
Mrs. Walker also worked for a time at State Mutual Insurance Co. in Worcester. Mr. Walker worked many years for Sheppard Envelope in the city.
Mrs. Walker’s grandparents were in Armenia when the Muslim Turkish army began the slaughter of Christian men, women and children in 1915.
“My mother lost her parents and siblings. My father’s uncle escaped to America. My father’s mother was afraid to cross the ocean on a ship. Instead, she was forced to walk across the desert with the Turks and died there,” Mrs. Walker said.
“My grandfather was a respected leader in his community. The Turks told him that if he would give up Jesus, they would let him live. He wouldn’t, so they shot him. He could have survived if he’d renounced his Christian religion.”
Her parents, David and Zevart Kulungian, were teenagers at the time. They were not slain, but were forced to work as slaves for the Turkish army. When Mr. Kulungian asked young Zevart to escape with him, she said it would be wrong to run away with a boy.
One rainy night, Mr. Kulungian found some nearby encamped English and French soldiers.
“My father went to the soldiers and asked them to free the slaves. They did. My mother was put in a Red Cross orphanage in the mountains of Lebanon. There, the older children taught the younger children crafts and how to speak English,” Mrs. Walker said.
Mrs. Kulungian already spoke her native Armenian and the Kurdish she’d learned while working as a slave, and eventually became fluent in five languages.
Young Zevart went to Marseilles, France with one of the older girls. There, she learned French from her foster family. Mr. Kulungian came to the United States.
Zevart remained in France until her future husband sent her money to join him in America.
“To save money, she traveled in third class steerage and contracted an eye disease. When she got to Ellis Island, they wouldn’t let her in and sent her back to France,” Mrs. Walker said.
The same thing happened during her next attempt to immigrate, but on her third try, Mr. Kulungian finally convinced his fiancée to travel first class, and she was welcomed at Ellis Island. The couple joined a thriving Armenian community in Indian Orchard, near Springfield, where the couple finally married and had two sons and two daughters.
“Massachusetts was a manufacturing center, especially Worcester,” Mrs. Walker said.
The family moved to Worcester, where the marriage foundered.
“My father never had a childhood and didn’t know how to treat children. He was very strong and didn’t realize his own strength. It was hard for my older brother,” Mrs. Walker said.
Her parents separated. Her father moved to Buffalo, New York and her mother remained in Worcester.
There, she continued a family tradition of reading fortunes in Turkish coffee grounds for friends. One English friend, Mary Alice Richardson of Oxford, was shocked when the coffee grounds predicted she would raise Mrs. Kulungian’s children.
When Mrs. Kulungian became ill with tuberculosis and depression, 12-year-old Alice went to visit her in Worcester State Hospital.
“My mother told me not to come back. She didn’t want us there with all the illness. I think she lived there a couple more years. I never saw her again. Zevart means ‘happy’ in Armenian. She was anything but,” Mrs. Walker said.
Their father paid the children’s room and board so they would not be wards of the state. Mrs. Richardson, whose own children were raised and gone, took in the four Kulungian children, as their mother had foretold, and raised them for 10 years.
“She was an angel. I’m fond of her granddaughters, who came to visit and became our friends,” Mrs. Walker said.
She attended Oxford’s public schools, where a junior high school civics class changed her life.
“I wanted to be involved, to return the favor to this wonderful country, which is still saving people around the world,” Mrs. Walker said.
When she graduated from Oxford High School in 1946, her father said he would not help fund a college education, since “girls are meant to marry.”
Then Oxford High Principal Frank Sannalla, a coach at WPI, suggested she get a job at State Mutual.
“He said in five years I could be where a college graduate would be, but State Mutual did not hire Armenian girls who had not been to a finishing school like Salter’s. I called and called, and the third time I applied they hired me. I was persistent,” Mrs. Walker said.
She met Mr. Walker at Sunday school at the First Congregational Church, where he was the program head and she was a teacher.
“We had four boys, animals, fowl and ducks,” Mrs. Walker said. The couple also took in 14 foster children, from infants to teens, “who were the hardest.”
“It was painful economically. We only were given $1 per day per child. I understood, from eighth grade civics, that I had a right to speak up, and I did.”
Her strongly worded letter was read on the floor of the Statehouse and funding for the foster care system was restructured.
In 1968, the family was struck by tragedy, when the couple’s 16-year-old son, James H. Walker Jr., died in an industrial accident in an elevator.
The Walkers’ other three boys survived and thrived, giving the couple four grandchildren.
Mrs. Walker and friend Grace Rutter later fought for better public transportation in town, where riders faced inconsistent schedules and missing buses.
She served on the Economic Development and Industrial Commission, and often stayed at Town Hall for selectmen’s meetings, where she took notes and shared information with the Telegram & Gazette reporter, sometimes being mistaken for a newspaper stenographer.
She attended training sessions for the commission, which taught her “courage and made sense.”
This led to a run for a selectman’s seat.
“I ran three times before I won. They didn’t want a woman selectman,” she said.
She served as the town’s first selectwoman from 1983 to 1998. She also served as the town’s representative and sole woman on the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission and was an election worker, library trustee, and member of various other committees and boards. She also became a 4-H Club leader and local activist.
She and her husband sold flowers and plants for many years, and also donated flowers to others. Many were planted around the Clara Barton School by a family friend and former custodian there, Stephen C. Anderson.
“He’s a good boy,” Mrs. Walker said.
When Mr. Anderson ran for and won a seat on the School Committee three years ago, it was decided that was a conflict of interest, since he was a school employee. He resigned, and Mrs. Walker volunteered to run for election to serve out his remaining two-year term.
Brenda A. Ennis, chairman of the School Committee, said, “Alice is an amazing woman. She stepped up when no one else would. She showed up at all school events. Whenever she gave advice, we listened. We knew we were hearing knowledge and wisdom.”
When Mrs. Walker chose not to run for re-election this year, she was honored at town meeting by the committee with flowers and a pottery vase created by OHS art teacher Jamie Taborda.
Mrs. Walker said she was happy to have served her community, and hopes people will remember the value of each and every individual.
“When Hitler began the Jewish holocaust, he said, ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’ when cautions were raised. If the slaughter of Armenians had been recognized, the Jewish holocaust wouldn’t have happened. It should be remembered, so it never happens again.”
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