A Reminiscence: John Najarian - February 2020
A Reminiscence: John Najarian
By Charles Kasbarian
This tribute contains comments that were delivered at a memorial luncheon that took place on Saturday, February 15, 2020 at the Hackensack Golf Club in Emerson, NJ which followed John’s interment in the Garden of Memories Mausoleum in Washington Township, NJ and his funeral at Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church in Ridgefield, NJ.
I know that John’s spirit is enjoying all the stories his family and friends will tell about him and their times together as we remember him today.
The Najarians were of Dikranagerdtsi extraction, as were the members of my own family. We were active in the Union City and West New York regions of New Jersey, which in the years following the Armenian Genocide and leading up to the 1950s, comprised “Little Dikranagerd” because so many refugees from that region of Western Armenia resettled there.
My association with John Najarian was more than that of one individual to another, but rather to the entire Najarian family. It started with John’s father, Charles Najarian, who operated a grocery store in West New York, NJ, and despite his business cares and responsibilities of raising three children with his wife Vergine, managed to devote time to their beloved Armenian community. Sometime in the 1950s, I served on the auditing committee with Charles to review the records of the Board of Trustees of the Armenian Apostolic Church of NJ, which was before Sts. Vartanantz Church was built.
Next comes Adrienne, John’s sister, with whom I sang in the church choir and the Armenian National Chorus of New York conducted by Armen Babamian. On my way to rehearsals at the McBurney YMCA, located at Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street in Manhattan, I used to pick up and drop off Adrienne (later Mahlebjian). She especially liked to talk to me in our Dikranagerdtsi dialect using pungent expressions that revealed her fine sense of humor.
Then comes John’s older brother Harold with whom I would pal around during our youth. He introduced me to his circle of odar friends in West New York, and they invited me to join them on their excursions to Belmar and the Jersey Shore during the summers. Harold and I double-dated with Diane and Alice, who eventually became our wives.
The Najarian family was a very musical one. John’s sister Adrienne had a beautiful soprano voice. Adrienne’s twin daughters Lynn and Lisa sing just like her. Even today, Lynn continues to sing as a member of the Sts. Vartanantz Choir. John’s brother Harold loves classical music, particularly opera. And unbeknownst to most people, Harold has a first-rate operatic tenor voice. He didn’t sing in any choir, Armenian or otherwise, nor did he perform in public. And it’s unfortunate that he chose to hide his light under a bushel. However, he maintained his interest in music and would go into Manhattan to attend the Sunday afternoon broadcasts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. On one such occasion, when Harold was sitting in the front row close to where the conductor was standing, Toscanini, who was known for his vigorous style, happened to strike his baton against a music stand. It flew out of his hand and skidded along the floor to where Harold was sitting. Harold stooped down to pick it up and held on to it. No one came to reclaim it, even after the concert was over, so he kept it and I presume he still has it to this day. A fitting souvenir.
Now John also liked to sing. But he didn’t quite have the equipment that Adrienne and Harold had. But that didn’t stop him. He would sing at the drop of a hat and whenever it suited him. Many times during our poker sessions, if he won a significantly large pot, he would break out into song, such as “Im chinari yaruh,” an Armenian folk song that extolls the virtues of the beloved and likens her to the praiseworthiness of a beautiful plane tree.
My association with John centered on the activities that took place in or around Armenia Hall in Union City, New Jersey and our active involvement in the affairs of Sts. Vartanantz Church, the Sts. Vartanantz Men’s Club, the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Alumni Association, and the Armenian Seniors of Sts. Vartanantz, St. Leon, and St. Thomas churches. Back in the old days, before Sts. Vartanantz was built, Armenia Hall, the hub of Armenian community activity at that time, was located at the junction of Hudson Boulevard and Kerrigan Avenue, which were not quite parallel. Armenia Hall was located at the triangle where those two avenues met. So Armenia Hall was a triangular shaped building (with half a second floor), owned by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and which was also used by the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) and the AYF for their many activities such as cultural events, plays, concerts, lectures, meetings, political gatherings, hantesses and dinners.
It was divided into two portions. Most activities took place in the larger hall with the higher ceiling. The other hall had a low ceiling, and that’s where the members of the AYF basketball team had mounted a basketball hoop to one wall just below the ceiling. Because of that low ceiling, the basketball could not be arced in the customary way to shoot into the basket. It had to be thrown with a shallow arc in order to make the shot. And this difficulty they managed to surmount and eventually became crackerjack shooters.
Those of you who knew John know what a superb athlete he was and how much he loved to play basketball, among other sports. This family trait is shared by his son Jeff, his daughters Sharon and Sandy, and his nephew Steve Mahlebjian, who all played with distinction for Sts. Vartanantz in the Armenian Churches Sports Association as well as with the AYF.
At various times, the AYF basketball team of Union City included, besides John Najarian, other outstanding athletes such as John Kazanjian, Charles (Buby) and Dick Shareshian, Marty Kavazanjian and Harry Bakalian. This all-victorious team in the AYF league became legendary.
John liked to talk about the old days and Armenia Hall. One of his favorite anecdotes had to do with a challenge to a basketball match that the AYF chapter received from its rivals in Union City—the Armenian General Athletic Union (AGAU). The AGAU was the American version of the Homenetmen, replete with a Boy Scout troop. It was led by Mike Megerdichian. Only the Homenetmen had a political orientation whereas the AGAU did not; the AGAU’s motto was “no politics.” But of course no politics meant “no nationalism.” And so all the things that were taught to the AYF kids such as Armenian history, the First Armenian Republic, its leaders, our national flag, anthem and coat of arms were denied to the youth of the AGAU. And the consequences were predictable. The AYF is still flourishing today, whereas the AGAU organization is defunct.
Mike Megerdichian was so proud of his AGAU basketball team that he challenged the AYF team to a tournament and arranged for a trophy to be given to the winning team. Well, the AYF team trounced the AGAU team, and when it came time for a presentation of the trophy, Mike could not be found. He had run off with the trophy because he could not bear to present it to the rival team.
Another incident that occurred at Armenia Hall that John liked to talk about had to do with the caretaker, who, in addition to his other duties, would serve refreshments to the members of the Men’s Club who would meet on the second floor where they would play tavli and pinochle. And on one occasion, the caretaker approached one of the card players with a tray containing four cups of demi-tasse coffee. The player said, “I didn’t order that.” The caretaker replied, “You certainly did! I heard you!” The player insisted that he hadn’t, and the caretaker, who was short tempered, got so angry, he threw the tray, cups, coffee and all against the wall where they were playing.
The things that John and I would reminisce about went beyond Armenia Hall and addressed the goings-on of the Armenian community as a whole in Union City and West New York. As a matter of fact, one week before John’s demise, we were talking about the juicy gossip items that occasionally made the rounds, which included who was carrying on with whose wife. Oh yeah, our chaste Armenian community had its peccadilloes and more than one skeleton in the closet. And John was conversant with all of it. Very little escaped his discerning eye. Like a true Dikranagerdtsi, John had a well-developed sense of humor. Very often, his comments were quite humorous and provoked laughter.
John was not a superficial Armenian but one who felt his Armenian identity in his bones. Not only was he active in our many community organizations, but he was extremely knowledgeable about Armenian affairs, current events and history. He was a fluent Armenian speaker. He went out of his way to keep himself apprised of what was happening to the Armenians in the news and on the battlefront. And what he did not know, he would ask about, always curious to be on top of what was being accomplished by Armenians. Any time there was an Armenian project that needed support, John would be among the first to donate funds and would do so generously.
John’s activities in church and social organizations revealed his ability as a first-rate leader. He never refused responsibility when it was asked of him. By serving the church, community and its many organizations, John served the Armenian nation.
John met, fell in love with and married fellow AYFer Sally Chilingirian of Watertown, Massachusetts. They raised three fine Armenian-oriented children—Jeff, Sharon and Sandy. Because these children were subsequently supported in that orientation by their spouses, John and Sally’s many grandchildren are following in these footsteps.
Asdvadz Hokin Lousavoreh.
Upon the request of the family, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church of Ridgefield, NJ, or Camp Haiastan of Franklin, MA.