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Providence: Generations pass the spirit—Olympics and more

Harry Derderian

As often was the case, Tom Vartabedian said it best, and he used the term “green machine” in referring to the Providence Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and its Olympic success.

As the Providence “Varantian” AYF and its community prepare to host its twelfth AYF Olympics, Tom’s phrase takes on greater meaning.

Hosting an Olympics with how much notice?

The Olympics, the athletes…

In the 86 years of AYF Olympics, Providence Varantians have won the cup an astounding 40 times, retired the Olympic cup seven times, have had 18 kings and queens recognized for Olympic and community activity and boasted seven men’s record holders and six ladies’ record holders. 1973 winning team 1997 winning team

Charlie Ajootian’s shot put record of some 59 feet plus goes back to 1969, the oldest of all records. Ajootian was a member of the Harvard track team, and he was all-American, becoming the first Harvard athlete to capture an individual NCAA indoor title in 1969 when he won the 35-pound weight throw. Ajootian also won the 35-pound weight throw at the 1969 Boston Knights of Columbus (KofC) Games and the hammer throw at the 1969 Penn Relays. 

The Providence “Hey Jon” kings and queens have stood out at Olympics but also participated year round as active members of local organizations and volunteers. To a person, they have not simply been Olympic participants. A Family of Olympic Kings AYF Olympics kings and queens, 2003

In 1957, the first Providence athlete to be recognized was John Arzoomanian, followed over time by Haig Varadian, Mal Varadian, John Varadian, Sarkis Atamian, Anto Avakian, Arthur Giragosian, Doc Bedrosian, Sylvia Simonian, Sarkis Kojian, Virginia Madoian, Margaret Stepanian, Harry Kushigian, Maro Kachadourian, Varoujan Karentz and Steve Elmasian.

1989 King Arthur Giragosian

Add to this is the highly visible AYF global sports story: Joe Almasian and Ken Topalian representing Armenia in bobsled competition in Lillehammer, Norway at the 1994 World Winter Olympics. The bobsled was rented, no less!

Joe Almasian and Kenny Topalian – Lillehammer 1994

 It was the first Armenian participation at the Winter Olympics since Armenia’s 1991 independence. The circumstances of participation created such an impression at the Olympics that the New York Timespublished a feature article in February of 1994 on the two young men and their mission.

Theirs was an ultimate example of spirit and dedication. Imagine commuting from Providence to Lake Placid just to practice! In 1994, seeing the red, blue and orange – for the first time in 60 years at a world olympics – was some sight on worldwide television sets.

Many Providence AYF athletes were collegiate standouts aside from AYF Olympic competition. It’s not a surprise to think that encouragement in collegiate athletics was created and initiated  by participating in AYF junior and senior Olympics. The AYF and NCAA have a connection, as the community has pride in many AYF athletes who were elevated to collegiate athletics.

Garry Giragosian, longtime Providence basketball coach, annual multiple medalist in the AYF Olympic dash events and standout in masters track in New England, recalls some of his peers

“John Arzoomanian played baseball at Providence College (PC). Sarkis Kojian was a top notch conference pole vaulter at the University of Rhode Island (URI). Emil John played varsity basketball at Brown University. Strong man and record holder Charlie Ajootian was a nationally recognized shot putter at Harvard and brother Ed in track, while sister Joyce starred in track at URI. Harry Kushigian was a starting lineman at Boston College for legendary coach Mike Holovak for four years, and Archie (URI) and Juny (Rhode Island College) Markarian stood out in baseball.”

Joyce Ajootian, 1975

“We have had some great kids and great athletes…I can think of a handful,” said AYF governing body member Mike Varadian. 

AYF long jump/triple jump record holder Steve Tutunjian was a standout jumper at Lehigh University and holds their triple jump record. Former high jump record holder John Asatrian did the decathlon at Bowdoin; 25-yard freestyle/50-yard breaststroke record holder Lynne Tutunjian participated in swimming at Bentley, and sister Christine did track at Assumption. Armen Varadian played soccer at Holy Cross. Paul Varadian competed in long jump/triple jump at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Nevart Varadian competed in both diving and track at Babson, while Beth Varadian played field hockey at Bryn Mawr. Ani and Joe Almasian played soccer at the University of New Hampshire.

Steve Tutunjian Triple Jump Record, 2012

Olympic king and community activist Steve Elmasian notes that “the Providence list goes on and on; they find interests in sports as AYF juniors.”

Gary Dodakian ran for URI; Nairi Kushigian played tennis for URI; Steve Markarian played rugby for URI; shot put record holder Ani Armenakyan threw for URI; Mary Najarian who set the mile record also ran for URI; and javelin record holder Andrea Tateosian achieved the same at Northeastern. Mary Najarian setting 1600 Record, 2009 Nairi Kushigian, 1991

Community activist Steve Mesrobian, who competed in the pentathlon in his Olympic days, proudly added his recollections:

Justine Douvadjian ran for Bryant, and John Surabian played tennis there. Joe Bozoian played tennis at PC, and Janine Garabedian played softball there. Chris Krikorian played soccer at the Community College of Rhode Island. High jump record holder John Aprahamian competed in the high jump at RPI and is a former record holder there. Haig Altoonian, golf record holder, was also a golf standout at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Joe Bozoyan, 1991 John Aprahamian record high jump, 1979

Ken Topalian is succinct: “All our kids are all-stars; they all try/participate, medal or not …”

Dave Bogosian was an AYF and Bryant tennis standout.  AYF 1600 meter record holder Greg Hamalian ran track at Holy Cross and brother Mark at Stonehill, with Andrew Hintlian at URI and sister Tarvis at Connecticut  College. Our 50 free/back record holder Lily Kernaghan swims at Denison, and Bob Kooharian participated in track at PC.

Lily Kernaghan sets 50 backstroke record, 2018

Director of the AYF Olympics archives Bob Tutunjian, who devotedly searched for pictures for this article offered:

Our low hurdles record holder Chris Melkonian competed at Cedarville. Karnig Tavitian ran track at the Community College of RI, and our former long jump record holder Christine Varadian competed in track/gymnastics at URI.

Chris Melkonian long jumping, 1996

…and more, the community

Archpriest Fr. Gomidas Baghsarian begins the reflection on the community:

“The Providence Armenian community is exemplary in every way…I remember Der Mesrob of blessed memory speaking highly about the parishioners at Sts. Vartanantz Church. It wasn’t until I was assigned to serve as pastor here that I realized that his words of praise for the community was more than well deserved…. the Providence Armenian community is a truly loving family. The church is their home and in my opinion, what makes the Providence community most unique, is the faithfulness of the older, founding generation in preparing the younger generation to continue the good work that began many years ago when our people settled here after the Armenian Genocide of 1915.”

The founding generation—referenced by Der Gomidas—settled in Providence’s neighborhood of Smith Hill to create a “little Armenia” with streets including Smith, Douglas, Chalkstone, Bernon, Goddard, Orms, Whipple, etc. Some could not speak English at all, but local industry welcomed them and their work ethic.

The church was built, organizations established, including the dynamic of encouraging their kids to follow – clearly these following generations have contributed in a seamless manner.

Amazingly, there is no gap, whether it is Olympics, church or any other aspect of Providence organizational and community pursuits. Generations – sometimes three or four – of families from decade to decade pass the “baton of involvement” with crisp handoff.

Harry Kushigian, football all-American at Mt. Pleasant High School, recognized conference  lineman for Boston College and AYF Olympic king for field events, reflected with pride on this history of his community: “Our parents, forefathers, taught us about who we are and provided a sense of community. We are a homogeneous family, and those who were born here typically stay. We don’t move. Providence is home to successive generations. We encourage our kids and other kids.”

Individuals may be members of organizations, but they are community members first, and AYF alumni take the lead.

The Sts. Vartanantz Church Men’s Club is no less than an extraordinary group of mostly former AYFers who practice good will with no bounds – for Armenians and non Armenians. Twelve months a year, the club raises money for families in need and cleans up the Armenian section at local cemeteries. The immaculate Genocide monument located at the entrance to North Burial Grounds greets visitors, and flags are placed at the graves of veterans. The homeless of the Providence Rescue Mission are beneficiaries of this goodwill with meals typically sponsored by countless members of the Armenian community. Last month’s fundraiser dinner for Baby Garen was the latest endeavor – goodwill beyond definition!

Every spring, a caravan of cars from Providence with members of all organizations heads to Camp Haiastan for cleanup.

The annual Sts. Vartanantz Church Bazaar Food Festival draws no less than 100 volunteers who from start to finish make the katah, yalanchi, etc. and pack up tables, deliver the ice and much more to the fabled and spacious Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet; the church hall is too small for the typically massive turnout from the Armenian community and beyond.

Every spring on Memorial Day, to pay respects to those who first settled in Providence, the community gathers at Heritage Park in the first Armenian neighborhood on historic Smith Hill, surrounded by the memories of families who lived on Chalkstone, Douglas, Goddard, Whipple, Bernon, Orms, etc.

On the political end, the Armenian National Committee of RI (ANC-RI) and its supporters are a highlight in the eastern region when it comes to political activism, credibility and results in local, state and federal matters.

Influential in the community-at-large, the Armenian community is respected by all with the tricolor flying high in all cities for April 24, as well as a red carpet rollout for AYF Olympics and various other organizational annual conventions.

For many years, Ani Haroian has been a force in the ANC locally and nationally and was awarded the Mkhitar Gosh award by Armenian president Serge Sargsyan, as well as the ANC-Western Region award. She has served in local and state community relations positions, widely respected in Providence and state political activity.

With regard to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), Hrag Arakelian proudly notes that its membership of some 40 activists is the youngest in memory. “We strive to set examples to support the community. We may not be the largest ARF unit, but we are cohesive and our annual panagoum (unique to the eastern region) at the Camp reflects our family relationships,” he said. “We seek to make the flame bigger,” adds Arakelian with pride.

The Providence Armenian Relief Society (ARS) “Ani” Chapter mirrors so well the sense of community and generational continuity. The 40-person chapter is chaired by third generation chair Melissa Simonian; her grandmother Baizar Garabedian (Providence “Arax” chapter) and  mother Suzanne Simonian (Providence “Ani” Chapter) were former chairs. These are just some examples of generations seamlessly passing on community spirit to continue Providence pride. The chapter supports the Armenian community locally and internationally in Armenia, Artsakh and Lebanon, along with the local Red Cross with an annual blood drive and food drive. The chapter has provided support to refugee families from Beirut, Baku, Armenia and Syria.

“The Social Services program organizes visits to community members in nursing homes and activities for our elderly. We provide students with college scholarship money, support the Mourad Armenian School, Sts. Vartanantz Church Sunday School, the Providence Varantian AYF chapters and the Providence Homenetmen chapter through our annual raffle,” elaborated Simonian.

Members of the chapter also volunteer their time serving on committees through Sts. Vartanantz Church, the Providence ARF, ANC-RI and the Armenian Martyrs Memorial Committee of RI. Many members have served the Armenian community, domestically and internationally, for decades as well as serving on the ARS Central Executive board, the eastern region board of directors and the United Nations. “Our Penny Giragosian was a pioneer of ARS activism at the United Nations; she was our leader,” added Simonian.

The Providence “Varantian” AYF-YOARF senior and junior chapters have been growing at a rapid pace in the past two years. Seniors number 60 and juniors 25, according to senior chapter president Nareg Mkrtschjan.

The chapter has gained over 20 new senior and junior members in the past few months. In addition, the chapter has helped plan many events throughout the community, including  marches for Artsakh, the church bazaar, ANC-RI events and support for Camp Haiastan – continuing the work of those who came before them. “We have a responsibility to our causes and to our forefathers,” Mkrtschjan said. 

Established in Providence in 1981, the Homenetmen chapter numbers some 100 members as it observes its 40th anniversary. According to chapter secretary Siran Krikorian, the group is home to members up to 50 years old. They host their weekly meetings at Sts. Vartanantz church hall, and their athletes participate in local basketball, soccer and volleyball leagues.

Annual participants in the regional Homenetmen Games, the Providence group also participates every four years in the Homenetmen World Athletic Games in Armenia.

“The Homenetmen chapter has always been a great supporter of the Sts. Vartanantz Church and all of its sister organizations. The majority of our members serve on various other committees like the AYF, Hamazkayin and the ARS. Our scouts and marching band participate in all local Armenian events. The chapter holds various fundraisers throughout the year to help support our Armenian youth,” noted chairman Hagop Khatchadourian.

“We have one of the most vibrant and dedicated Armenian communities on the east coast and the United States,” said Krikorian. “We see each other as family and have developed great working relationships with each other… creating a beautiful Armenian community for future generations.”

In 1994, Kevork Vichabian and Margaret Stepanian formed the Providence Hamazkayin chapter. Vichabian had long been a community activist, as had Stepanian, who served as the group’s first chairperson, bringing her dedication and skills from previous experiences of having served on AYF CE, ARS Regional and ARS Central Executive Board. Add 2003 Olympic queen to her resume!

“Our Artsakh dance group participates at the annual church bazaar as well as helping year round for any cause in our community,” said secretary Tigranoui Minassian.

The organization annually sponsors cultural and educational events with wide-spread community support. Twenty seven years later, Stepanian reflected on what she helped start.

“The spirit of Hamazkayin adds color and energy to our community… dance group performances are a delight and their educationals are so well done. Hamazkayin adds so much to our Providence community family,” she concluded.

It is most unusual that a Der Hayr serves a community he grew up in.

Rev. Fr. Kapriel Nazarian grew up in Providence; he was an active member of the AYF juniors and seniors and attended one of the first Junior Seminar weekends at Camp Haiastan.

“Providence is always extremely supportive of the youth of our community. We always rally around hosting the Olympics to make the experience very special for everyone attending. Our parishioners work together seamlessly in every mission that we undertake and this is what defines the character of the Providence community,” said Nazarian. “It has been this way for generations and we thank God that this spirit of brotherhood continues to thrive as we pass it on to each successive generation. We want everyone to feel welcome to Providence and a part of our family,” he mentioned while reflecting on his parish and the coming AYF Olympic weekend. 

In his unassuming and cordial manner, Der Kapriel added a final thought: “We look forward to welcoming everyone to Providence again!”


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