Norma Karaian

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Boston Globe, MA
January 18, 2005

Norma Karaian, 100; was Boston real estate attorney
By Glenn E. Yoder, Globe Correspondent

Norma M. Karaian, considered the first American-born Armenian female attorney in the United States, died Sunday at her home in Watertown. She was 100.

Starting her career as a title examiner after graduating from Boston University Law School in 1925, Mrs. Karaian ignored gender bias while becoming widely recognized in her field. She spent the bulk of her career at the Boston-based firm Gaston & Snow and was highly regarded for her legal work in real estate.

"She was very accomplished and so well-known in the legal arena when it concerned real estate law," said her son John, adding that Mrs. Karaian handled the title for the Prudential Center's construction. "I remember her saying that she could call a title company and upon her name alone being mentioned they would issue a title policy. That's how well-respected she was."

Born Yaghnor Maksoodian in Providence in 1904, she changed her first name to Norma after the actress Norma Talmadge to "sound American," friend and fellow attorney Cerise Jalelian said. She began her working career at the age of 8, operating the cash register at her father's store.

She graduated from Boston University Law School at the age of 20, but had to wait a year to take the bar exam since she had not yet turned 21. In the interim, she found a job at a law office that paid $15 per week.

Although she wished to become a litigator, women were banned from the practice at the time, Jalelian said.

"She didn't look at being female as an obstacle; she just thought everyone should be treated the same," she said. "She was really born before her time."

Mrs. Karaian found her calling when she became a real estate attorney in 1926. She remained at the post until 1941, when she retired and had three children.

However, in 1951, hard times struck. Her husband, Leo J. Karaian, an organic chemist, died. Mrs. Karaian began performing contract work for the firm of Hoag & Sullivan. Even without a high income, she put her children first, her son said.

"She always made sure if she could buy us one pair of shoes, it would always be the best," he said. "She wanted to give her children the very best because that's how much she thought of us."

The family lived in an apartment in Watertown until 1969, when Mrs. Karaian purchased her first and only house, where she lived with her son.

She continued contracting before joining the firm Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster for one year. In 1972, she moved to Gaston & Snow, where she remained until the firm folded in 1991.

For the remainder of her life, Mrs. Karaian took on legal projects and was honored with numerous awards. She was a member of numerous organizations and in 1954, she served a year as president of the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers.

Her son said that at Boston's finest restaurants waiters would vie for the right to serve her.

"People were attracted to my mother like a magnet," he said. "I've never thought of my mother about being anything but my mother, but there was this aura about her that would be totally engaging to people."

For her centennial in September, a celebration was held at Anthony's Pier 4 in Boston. Mrs. Karaian personally greeted each of the more than 100 guests.

"We ended the evening with my dancing with mom to Nat King Cole's 'Unforgettable,' which I think she is," her son said.

Besides her son, she leaves two daughters, Lenore of Waltham and Marilyn Hollisian of Watertown.

A funeral service will be held at noon tomorrow at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown.


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