Steve Kerr had known the story of his grandparents saving thousands of Armenians in the 1920s. But here he was, in a packed banquet room on Saturday night at San Francisco’s KZV Armenian School, feeling the impact of their benevolence like never before.
Stanley and Elsa Kerr cared for nearly 10,000 orphans when they had nowhere else to go. Many of them went on to become college graduates, experts and professionals. The Kerrs put themselves in grave danger for people they didn’t know.
One of the most moving moments on Saturday came during a preview of a yet-to-be-completed documentary, “Kerr: Warriors of Peace.” When a snippet from a letter from his grandfather was read, 99 years to the day after he wrote it, Kerr put his head down and wiped away a tear as the chills swirled around the room.
Tonight the most bitter cold of all this winter, all the remaining Armenians are preparing to go out again into exile. Many will perish on the way from Turkish bullets or from cold. Our orphans, old women and men, will remain in our compounds. Perhaps by remaining here, we can protect the remaining Armenians from massacre. If the Turks do not respect our flag and our property, we will die with the others. May the horrors of the last weeks be a blot on the pages of history. No matter what happens, remember that I am ready to make any sacrifice, even death, and have no fear. Good bye, with love and hope.
Kerr heard these long-ago words with the rest of the crowd at Saroyan Hall, which doubles as the K-8 school’s gymnasium. On this night, it was converted into an elegant setting with white tablecloths and sparkling chandeliers for the 38th annual KZV School Gala. This year was more special with Kerr in attendance. The Warriors head coach was joined by his mother, Ann, his wife, Margot, his son, Nick and daughter, Maddy.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed attended along with Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Vahan Derounian, a mortgage consultant from Wells Fargo, wore Kerr’s blue Arizona jersey on top of his shirt and tie. Anahid Katchian, 74, drove from Denver with her husband. Katchian’s father was one of the orphans.
The video of his late father, the images of his grandparents, the interviews with his aunts and uncles — they visibly touched Kerr. He was 10 years old when his grandfather died. He remembers his grandfather being a handyman. Whenever Stanley made the trek from Princeton, N.J., to see his grandchildren in Southern California, he would end up fixing something. Once, they went to the store together to get wood, mesh wiring and nails and Kerr built a rabbit cage with his grandfather. He remembers the kindness of grandmother, Elsa, and how she’d cook for them. He remembers a few of the favorite meals she used to make.
“They were just Granny and Grandpa to me,” Kerr said. “They weren’t these heroes who saved a generation of children.”
Kerr was the guest of honor, but the honor didn’t belong to him. More than 400 people turned out this year, unofficially the most ever, to say thank you. They heaped on Kerr the gratitude they were never able to extend to his grandparents. They threw roses at his feet, but only because he stands on their shoulders.
And Kerr, indeed, felt the gratitude. As person after person came up to him and shared their stories. As ovation after ovation serenaded his family.
“There was an energy here that I couldn’t have predicted,” said Mary Papazian, president of San Jose State University. “And I knew the history of the Kerrs. I’ve known that history for years. But there was something about (this night). It was a pent up 100 years of thanks that just came out.”
Kerr already knew of his favor with the Armenian community. He knew about his family’s work. He remembers his dad’s parents having Armenian friends. He knew just about every Armenian household had a picture of Mt. Ararat, the Biblical site where many believe Noah’s Ark to be and the principal national symbol of Armenia. He knew if he saw a last name that ended in “ian” it was an Armenian. He told them the story of nudging his dad when it hit him Jerry Tarkanian was Armenian.
Kerr gets random thanks from Armenian people on his travels. Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams is from Fresno, a major hub in California for the Armenian community. Adams had a couple of friends on one road trip and they were enamored with Kerr’s family story.
The people in the attendance for Saturday night’s school fundraiser were especially appreciative. Their parents or grandparents were survivors whose stories they hold dear. They overwhelmed the Kerr family. It makes sense, too, as they were directly connected to the Armenian Genocide. Their small children, dressed up in evening wear, ran around without a care in the world, because Kerr’s grandparents thought their ancestors were worth saving. Stanley Kerr’s book, “The Lions of Marash” — his eyewitness account of the annihilation of the Armenian population in Western Armenia, published in 1973 — is practically required reading for Armenians.
By the 1910s, Armenian sympathy was part of the cultural fabric of American society. Then, on April 24, 1915, hundreds of Armenian leaders, intellectuals, writers, artists and doctors were killed, kicking off the exile of Armenians from their homeland, officially beginning the Armenian Genocide. (Though most historians generally conclude that the term genocide correctly describes the loss of more than 1.5 million Armenian lives over this period, Turks have always rejected the description that there was an intent to destroy a race of people, arguing that the violence and deaths were the result of the chaos caused by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.)
The U.S. government under President Woodrow Wilson began an emergency drive to procure funds for survivors and refugees. Grocery stores and Sunday schools collected pennies for their relief. Parents used “Remember the starving Armenians” as motivation for their children to not waste any food. America’s entry into World War I slowed the relief activities temporarily, but the end of the war in 1918 allowed for greater efforts to aid the Armenians, including a congressional act in 1919 incorporating the Near East Relief organization.
This is where Stanley and Elsa come in.
“These people went to the other side of the world who had nothing to do with us. They had nothing to do with us,” said Ani Hovannisian, the documentarian who attended Pacific Palisades High with Kerr and whose father taught with Kerr’s father at UCLA. “He was the son of a Presbyterian minister, Stanley was, and he was in the Army but he wasn’t in active service. He was a chemist at Walter Reed and someone came through saying the Near East Relief is looking for people to go over to the Ottoman Empire to help people in need. And he jumped. He jumped.”
Ann Kerr, the mother of Steve Kerr, greets gala attendees along with Steve Kerr. (Photo: Sarah Arnold)
Kerr’s grandparents were among many Americans who took ships across the oceans and seas to help this mission. Elsa Reckman went to teach in an Armenian school in Turkey after graduating from Wisconsin. Stanley Kerr was a chemist at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C., when he decided to help abroad. They both ended up working with Near East Relief, an American charity created to help the Armenians.
In 1919, Kerr’s grandfather was stationed in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. He worked as a medical and sanitary officer who tended to the Armenians who survived what was known as the death march. Some of those exiled trekked through the Syrian Desert — surviving starvation, dehydration, sexual abuse, human trafficking and murder. Stanley tended to the survivors, mostly women and children. He transferred to run a relief effort in Marash. He was there in February 1920 when French troops suddenly pulled out and left the Armenians exposed to the Turks. The Armenians were massacred during a three-week siege.
In 1922, Stanley and Elsa joined the staff of a Near East Relief orphanage in Lebanon that cared for Armenian children. When he married Elsa later that year, one of the Armenian refugees served as a flower girl in their wedding. A malaria outbreak forced them to abandon the orphanage in 1923.
After returning home, the two ended up back in Lebanon at the American University at Beirut. Stanley was the chairman of the biochemistry department and Elsa was the dean of women students. They had four children, including Kerr’s father, Malcolm. He was born and raised in Beirut. In 1982, Malcolm became president of the same university where his father worked despite a civil war still being waged in the region. On Jan. 18, 1984, Malcolm Kerr was shot and killed by two gunmen on behalf of Islamic Jihadists who took credit for the murder.
Kerr was in college at the University of Arizona at the time, but the nurturing of his father had already planted the seed of his worldview.
Kerr, as a kid, cared more about playing hoop than what his parents were talking about. But the eight-time NBA champion, now 53, can’t overstate the impact his upbringing continues to have on the coach and person he is today.
He spent a lot of time overseas, in places like France, Tunisia, Egypt. His house was like a United Nations gathering. His parents would have barbecues and Kerr said they were like an international festival.
He was back in the midst of one on Saturday. He was gifted a mini statue of Noah’s Ark as a token of appreciation. At the end of the night, he and the family joined in a “shourchbar” — a traditional Armenian line dance where the participants are connected by pinkies.
“Growing up overseas, knowing people from all over the world, knowing my family’s background,” Kerr said, “it just gave me a broader picture of the world, gave me a better understanding of people. How we’re all pretty much the same at our core but we just come from different cultures and different backgrounds. But we can all connect very easy, especially through sports.
“It’s a good reminder that there’s a lot of reasons why people connect to sports, connect to teams or athletes,” he continued. “It’s not just the ball going in the hoop or the team winning. It’s the emotional connection that happens. People who are Steph Curry fans, they know about Steph’s life and what he’s accomplished, not only on the court and off. You think about all the impact Kevin (Durant) has made, all of his charitable work around the country, all the lives he’s touched. So then you think about there is a whole generation of kids out there who are Kevin Durant fans, Warriors fans, for a whole different reason. Part of it is basketball, but part of it is the impact he is making on their lives.”
Hovannisian, while working on the documentary, has orchestrated several interviews with the Kerr family. She also found hundreds of pages of letters written by Stanley and Elsa. In one of the letters, Stanley said that as he typed, a gunshot fired off with each stroke of a letter.
For Armenians, these letters bring to life their history. They have lost their homeland and are spread across the globe as a result of their exile. They don’t have access to their culture’s treasures. They are witnessing pieces of their heritage, such as their native language, slip away as they assimilate into the mores of other countries.
In 1991, the country received its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union. The Republic of Armenia. But most of what was their land now belongs to Turkey. Hovannisian’s first name comes from the city Ani, which was formerly the capital of an Armenian kingdom. Ani means “city of 1,001 churches” and its religious structures were considered among the most advanced in the world and a source of great pride for Armenians. Now, it sits in Turkish territory, in view of Armenia but still unreachable. The Cathedral of Ani was where the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church dwelled for a half of century. It’s visible from a distance, the domed basilica abandoned in decay.
For a community of people who have been stripped of much of their culture, for people who have heard others deny the validity of the Armenian Genocide, those letters from Kerr’s grandparents bring their heritage to life. The stories being told, the evidence they present, it means the world to them. Saturday night, Hovannisian shared some of them with the Kerr family through the preview of the documentary, which was a condensed behind-the-scenes look at its early stages of development.
“He kept a diary and it was so meticulous,” she said. “These people were saving lives. They were running out into the street saving people. They were in the hospital saving people. They were negotiating peace. They were having Christmas dinner. They were giving food to the orphans. And he still had time to write letters. Elsa, too. And these letters are the biggest treasures because that’s the evidence.
“My grandmother,” Hovannisian continued, “who was orphaned and she saw her twin six-month-old siblings taken away, never to be seen again. My grandfather had eight brothers and sisters. He left and came back to his village and everybody was gone. You grow up with these stories and you know it’s real. You know it happened. And you have denialists saying it didn’t happen but then you have this evidence — not of an Armenian, but of an American, of many Americans and non-Armenians who went from around the world to help. … Stanley Kerr and Elsa Kerr gave us renewed life.”
— Reported from San Francisco
(Top photo: Sarah Arnold/Special to The Athletic).