A Tribute to George Mason By his ‘Odar’ Co-Publisher
The USC Institute of Armenian Studies held a Gala Banquet on May 18, 2008, in Los Angeles, to salute California’s Armenian community for its 50 years of progress and prosperity.
Five notable Armenians were singled out for special recognition: Mike Connors, Paul Ignatius, Jerry Tarkanian, George Deukmejian, and Ron Tutor. Two documentaries were presented to showcase the outstanding accomplishments of 60 other prominent Californians and recognize the generosity of The Lincy Foundation, the humanitarian airlifts of The United Armenian Fund, and the 50th anniversary of The California Courier.
On this occasion, Prof. Reese Cleghorn, co-founder of The California Courier, and former Dean of the College of Journalism at University of Maryland, paid a special tribute to the late George Mason (Elmassian), co-publisher of The Courier.
Here are excerpts from Prof. Cleghorn’s remarks which trace the beginnings of the newspaper and provide the unique perspective of an "odar" on the Fresno Armenian community a half century ago.
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I came here to honor George Mason, my dear friend and colleague. Twenty years ago before an anniversary dinner like this, Harut Sassounian called and asked me to come so George and I could be honored. I said no, but I’d come to an event honoring just George. You don’t understand, Harut said. George said, he won’t do this without you.
That was typical George -- generous, fair-minded to a fault, modest, self-effacing. To that I must add, funny. Well, it is painful to think of this banquet without George. After all, I was with the California Courier for two years and he was, for more than thirty.
For so many years the Courier was George. It was George in his serious columns about the Soviet Union and other subjects in international affairs. It was George in his pithy little features written under the name: "Uncle Hadji." It was George in the columns on business that he wrote in the early days.
And it was George, of course, whose idea the Courier was. He was the visionary who knew it would work because it had to work. It had to work to capture the playful sprit of this community, and its serious core. It had to work because the future of the community needed a different kind of voice in the 1950s, one that reached beyond the narrow bickering and partisanship that so often characterized Armenian affairs.
George worried that the second and third generations were losing their sense of unity with each other and their appreciation of their heritage, their ethnic pride. Some actually were selling great old family rugs because they wanted wall-to-wall carpeting -- he said they thought it was more American.
And he WAS persuasive. I had a good job on the Associate Press Foreign Desk in New York, Rockefeller Center. My wife was pregnant. I had made it through Columbia graduate school because of my work and hers, and with the G.I. Bill. We had no money.
So here comes the only Armenian I had ever known. And he talks me into this screwy idea. Start a weekly for ARMENIANS in CALIFORNIA! I had never been to California.
He said there were 50,000 Armenians out there and they needed an independent paper.
I had heard of "starving Armenians," but I had never heard of "thriving Armenians."
So we did it. He would be general manager, I would be editor and we would be co-publishers and own the paper 50- 50.
After two years, George, who didn’t like selling advertising, decided to go into securities and I wanted to go back to the South, where I grew up, to cover the civil rights movement just getting under way. So I sold my half to George, and he hired an editor.
When we came -- with no money -- George and Sally and my wife and I all lived together in a free house that belonged to George’s folks. We had a free office, given by friends in real estate. We had a printer who could wait to be paid. We had a Los Angeles office on West Adams in the back of a gas station owned by Herb and Jack Elmassian, George’s cousins.
How to get started? George had a big idea. We would send the first four issues to 10,000 Armenians, free, and by the end of that time enough would have subscribed for us to be under way. But what 10,000 Armenians? There were no mailing lists that big.
So George had another big idea. Get all the phone books and mark all the names ending in "ian" and "yan." So we did.
But there were only four of us. 10,000 labels, four issues, 40,000 labels to be typed. By four people.
So George had another big idea. He found labels that were four deep. The fourth one was pretty dim, but it was OK.
So imagine us, working on old typewriters, peering at small type in dozens of phone books, making mistakes you couldn’t erase -- 10,000 times. We worked late at night, early in the morning... all the time. Sometimes we were pretty bleary-eyed. A lot of people named O’Bryan and Ryan were soon reading an Armenian newspaper and didn’t know why.
Believe it or not, after four issues we did have subscription payments from about a fourth of the 10,000 -- enough to pay the printer and move ahead. Maybe we were going to make it.
One day we got a check for $5 from William Saroyan, who wanted to get the paper in Paris. His sister in San Francisco would send it to him. We were SO pleased. The great writer of plays, short stories and novels, Pulitzer Prize winner, world-renowned author wanted our paper!
One little thing. His $5 came in past the deadline, and was supposed to be $6. He probably didn’t know that and we didn’t care.
I ran into an old man on the street in Fresno the next day -- and told him about Saroyan. "How much he pay?" he said. "Well, I said, $5 but . . . ." "Damn Bitlistsi!" he said.
Our first issue was very newsy . . . a story about what prices the Armenian growers were expecting for grapes this year with interviews of several around Fresno. Another story -- we had it first -- Rouben Mamoulian, the great Hollywood and Broadway director, was suing Sam Goldwyn for not signing him to direct the movie of "Porgy and Bess." We had an interview reporting that Marjorie Housepian’s book "A Houseful of Love" would be a play on Broadway and a producer had been chosen; an interview with rising Metropolitan Opera star Lucine Amara -- Miss Armaganian of Fresno; and the first installment of a book about Calouste Gulbenkian, "Mr. Five Percent."
I’ve read somewhere that in our first years the paper was mostly a lot of social notes. Wrong! We did have social notes -- a lot -- in columns with names like "The Fresno Grapevine" and "Brief Bits from Around the Bay." But in our first issue we had a front-page story about the UN Human Rights Commission’s efforts to free Armenians who had been brutalized and jailed in Moscow and Yerevan. We devoted a whole issue to the genocide, writing stories as if they were just taking place, with illustrative sketches by Sally and old photos. I don’t think the genocide had been so fully reported for widespread consumption in a newspaper.
We had heritage stories -- the 10 Most Famous Armenians, for instance -- I think Vartan Mamigonian was at the top of the list. And stories about the first Armenians getting a toehold in U.S. politics. In an early issue George wrote an insightful column about why U.S. Marines were in Lebanon.
We had early stories about fundraising for an endowed professorship at Harvard. George had excellent commentary on the editorial page, where we also had editorials that could have been in any very good daily.
One thing we did NOT write about -- Soghomon Tehlirian. As yon know, he had assassinated Talaat, one of the top Turkish officials who orchestrated the genocide, and a Berlin court had freed him. He lived in California. We didn’t write about him for fear that Turks would track him down and kill him.
I found out right from the beginning that there were no actual Tashnaks or Ramgavars or Hunchaks. Only people who "leaned" Tashnak, "leaned" Ramgavar. I had this mental image of 1,000 Armenians, half of them leaning to the left and half leaning to the right. What was I leaning? I was leaning "odar."
You know, a lot of people asked what we were up to in the early days. They suspected us of being aligned with one faction or another, or with one church or even one village. "A little heavy on the Moushetsi news last week, eh?" somebody would say. I’d be on the phone and George would overhear: "No, Ma’am, we are not suppressing news about Dikranagertsis. We think very highly of Dikranagertsis." Or: "Yes, sir, you are exactly right. If we don’t watch it the Tashnaks will take over the country." Take over what? I thought. The AGBU picnic? I didn’t even know what country we were talking about.
Of course, we loved Armenian success stories. I always thought of two words that characterized Armenians: Aspiration and imagination. We wrote about the people who sold Hula Hoops by millions, had chipmunks that sang in cartoons and on recordings, played the oud in concert. . . and about J.C. Agajanian, winner of the Indianapolis Speedway, and Cardinal Agajanian, who we said might become Pope.
Aspiration and imagination, of course, didn’t always work out -- but everybody tried.
Right after we got to Fresno, George and I passed a house with a sign that said: Aram Der Zakarian: Violin. We were told that Mr. Der Zakarian had worked out a system for profiting on the soybeans market. He started winning and soon had a house full of clerks and secretaries whacking away on his scheme. He captured the soybean market! And then . . . It all collapsed. So now he was back quietly teaching violin.
And Harold Rakoobian’s big idea -- Does anybody here have a Shish-O-Matic? No, I didn’t think so. But I DO have a Shish-O-Matic. Harold -- and I’m sorry to say he has recently had a serious stroke -- designed big skewers that had a shield up near the hilt. You could slide it down and dump the kebab without having to touch it or even have your glove touch it. He was petty sure people would go for that, en masse. But it didn’t work. I have mine because we had made a deal with Harold. We’d run his first ad in exchange for free Shish-O-Matics. I may have the only one left on earth. It still works just fine.
And thank you for allowing me to laugh with you, and sometimes cry with you, for 50 years!