Vartan Gregorian was born in the ancient city of Tabriz in northern Iran. In his lovely autobiography, The Road to Home, Vartan notes that some archeologists believe that the historical location of the Garden of Eden was in Tabriz. But it was a dusty and unlovely place when Vartan was a boy. He was the oldest child of a modest Armenian family which put him in the minority in a polyglot region that was dominated by Shia Muslims. His mother died when he was six. His father was distant and chilly, and then later, there was the evil stepmother. But at the age of 12, Vartan volunteered to be a book shelver in the Armenian Church’s library, and there—amidst the leather-bound volumes in many languages, the bearded scholars in black gowns, the centuries of accumulated knowledge, and the sun-dappled quiet—Vartan found his Eden, and he never left it.
Vartan, who died last week at 87, was a learned man to be sure, but never a donnish one. He was filled with life and compassion and merriment, and the pleasure of his company was unequalled. But he believed devoutly in learning and scholarship not because it made you smarter, but because it could make you a better human being. That is the idea that animated his life as a scholar, as a professor, as a university president, as the savior of the New York Public Library, and finally as the longtime head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York where, after a lifetime of fundraising, he was able to give out millions to help refugees and immigrants here and abroad, improve the education of girls around the world, reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, expand voter registration, and on and on to help everyone find their own Eden.
It’s not a secret that Vartan identified with Andrew Carnegie, the hardscrabble Scottish industrialist who loved reading and vowed if he ever became rich, he would start libraries for poor boys like himself. Carnegie was also an immigrant who was embraced by America and in return created the world’s first and greatest public library system. Like Carnegie, Vartan understood that America was not a country based on a common religion, blood, or background, but an uncommon set of ideas—that all people were created equal, that no one was above the law, that here the people rule—and in many ways Vartan spent a lifetime teaching Americans about their own heritage and what it means to be an American. Over and over, Vartan talked not about the rights of citizenship but the responsibilities.
I first met Vartan when I was named the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I had never raised a dollar in my life and when I saw he was on the board, I made a pilgrimage to him to get advice and help. I could tell he thought I needed it. He said he had no sympathy for people who complained they did not like raising money. Never be sheepish or embarrassed when you are asking for money from a foundation or a philanthropist. Their job, he said with a wry smile, was to give away money, and they should be getting down on their hands and knees to thank you for giving them the opportunity to support something important. I did find that there were foundations that made you feel small and beggarly when asking for support, but Carnegie, under Vartan, was not one of them.
One of the first things he told me was that I should host immigration ceremonies at the Constitution Center. I said why. He asked me if I’d ever been to one. I said no. Go, he said, and you’ll see. I did. There, at the federal courthouse, families from dozens of nations, from babies to great-grandparents, usually in their national dress, colorful saris and dhotis and dashikis and sarongs and ponchos and turbans, crying for joy because they had waited years, sometimes decades to become Americans. It was magical and moving. We started hosting them once a month.
Vartan, too, made his pilgrimage to America. He left Tabriz at 15 to study at a lycée in Beirut. At 17, he won a scholarship to Stanford where, despite his imperfect English, he graduated in two years. He went on to earn his doctorate at Stanford where he met Clare Russell—he calls her “the incomparable Clare” in his autobiography—a New England WASP who was as crisp and cool as he was rumpled and gregarious. They were a lifetime team and raised three terrific and accomplished sons.
Vartan went on to teach at San Francisco State College, UCLA, and the University of Texas at Austin before moving to his beloved University of Pennsylvania. At Penn he became the first dean of what is now the College of Arts and Sciences. He eventually became provost, and it was there in Philadelphia where Vartan became an American citizen, saying at his ceremony that “democracy was the embodiment of human dignity, freedom, and self-determination.” Vartan was that rare thing: an academic who was a good manager. He was the odds-on favorite to become the next president of the University of Pennsylvania, his dream job. When he did not get it, he reacted in a way that was uncharacteristic of him: he was bitter. “If somebody spits at me,” he wrote in his memoir, “I cannot pretend it’s a raindrop.” But it taught him something: to trust but verify, to put on a brave public face, and never demean anyone.
It was also the spur that led him to become the head of the New York Public Library. At the time, he had other university offers and this seemed like an odd choice. The library was down-at-the-heels, nearly bankrupt, a burnt-out star in the New York firmament. But Vartan embraced the New York scene, became a star himself in the social realm, made the library sexy. He played NYC politics like he’d been born to it. It was simpler than Tabriz, he joked. He put in air conditioning. The library was reborn.
For Vartan, New York was the crossroads of the world where he felt truly at home. Except for his seven years as president of Brown after he left the library, he spent the last 30 years of his life there. He liked being able to talk to cab drivers in the different languages that he spoke, Armenian, Persian, Russian, French, and of course, his own heavily-accented English. Vartan was courtly. But never in a stagey or false way. He was what Jefferson described as a natural aristocrat. He bowed. His goatee was as neatly trimmed as his hair was unruly. I never saw him without a tie. He put his arm through yours when he was strolling up Madison Avenue. (He didn’t walk so much as saunter.) Not for Vartan the now ubiquitous internet felicitation of “Hi.” Even the briefest email from him began, “My Dearest.” I never heard him swear. I never heard him raise his voice. I never heard him cast aspersions. Did he get a twinkle in his eye when someone he didn’t care for got their comeuppance? He was human.
But he was not a softy. In his autobiography he said that as a boy he would pick a fight with the biggest bully on the playground on the first day of school. Even if he got a bloody nose—which he usually did—people would be wary of him. There was no better friend than Vartan, but I wouldn’t want to have him as an enemy. He was a happy warrior. When I once told him about some competition at work, he told me about the Roman Emperor who had the face of his rival stenciled on the bottom of his sandals so he could trample him all day.
During the years I was editor of Time, Vartan was responsible for two of our signature initiatives. He was, along with Time, a founding partner of ServiceNation, a coalition of more than 100 organizations in support of national service. The drive began with a cover story I wrote called “The Case for National Service.” Vartan gave us $500,000 and spearheaded the formation of that coalition. The eventual result was the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, signed into law by Barack Obama.
At Vartan’s instigation, we started an annual higher education summit with Carnegie. No one believed in the importance of higher education more than Vartan. When we were planning the summit, he said we must do something to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act. Not for the first time I nodded as though I knew what he was talking about. The Morrill Act was one of the greatest pieces of legislation in American history, he said. In the midst of the Civil War, Vartan said, Abraham Lincoln signed the bill which created “land-grant universities.” The federal government granted land and money to start public universities. We may not remember the Morrill Act much today, he said, but without it there would be no Iowa State, or Michigan State, or University of California, or Tuskegee University, or Cornell or MIT. That’s visionary leadership, he said.
For so many people, Vartan was the person you called when you were trying to start something, or when you were in a fix. Vartan could have been a model for what Malcolm Gladwell calls super connectors, those people who know exponentially more people than everyone else. I always noticed that when Vartan met someone new, almost the first thing he would say to her was, Ah, you must meet so-and-so! He was glue that held together hundreds of networks.
Vartan may have had more awards and honors than any living American. And he loved them all. Not because he was vain, but because he understood that giving him an award allowed him to help that organization, which he always did. It was part of the game, and he loved playing it. He once told me that modesty may be a public virtue, but it was not a private one. He wanted good people to be ambitious.
In his autobiography, Vartan recalled how his beloved illiterate grandmother used to tell him that character was everything, possessions ephemeral, reputation enduring. When he was going to sleep, he said, she told him the fairy tale that the stars were our guardians, they watched over us and “gave us a sense of goodness, love, compassion, tolerance, and justice.” Vartan was that star for so many who knew him, and many more who did not.
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