Interview: Thirty Years of Olympian Service: An Interview with Tom Vartabedian

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Thirty Years of Olympian Service:

An Interview with Tom Vartabedian

By Lucine Kasbarian

Published in the Armenian Weekly

October 16, 1999

Of all programs initiated by the Armenian Youth Federation, their Olympic games are considered the crown jewel of their activities – a place where we as a collective Armenian community celebrate who we are, and applaud our youth who carry the torch of the Armenian identity. Having just completed its 66th year, the Olympics is a much-anticipated annual reunion for many.

AYF athletes call it a combination of pain and pleasure as they anticipate the weekend’s competition and camaraderie. Alumni call it a time to rekindle friendships, meet coming generations, and let Armenian spirit, music and cuisine course through their veins. Counselors from Camp Haiastan call it icing on the cake after spending a summer with campers in a land where Armenia lives.

Those behind the scenes – the Governing Body, Central Executive, Steering Committee, and good-natured community volunteers handling all the daunting details that go into its execution – must certainly call it hell on wheels. Doesn’t that sound like something worth reporting and documenting? Aren’t we glad somebody does that for us?

That somebody is Tom Vartabedian. How does one begin to describe him? To his peers, he is known as a dedicated ARF member and AYF alumnus, who with the support and energy of his wife, has passed his devotion on to his children and his community in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts. To Armenian Weekly readers, his should be a household name. Through his regular column, “Poor Tom’s Almanac,” he reaches us like a neighbor chatting over the white picket fence, sharing his true-to-life observations – sometimes stranger than fiction, often funny, always heartfelt.

What Weekly readers (and the Armenian community at large for that matter) may not know is that Tom has been, by profession, a photojournalist for the Massachusetts-based Haverhill Gazette for 30 years. He has also been the one-man band behind the “Special AYF Olympics Insert” readers have the pleasure of devouring once Labor Day weekend has become a memory.

Vartabedian spent his first 15 years at the Gazette as a sports writer and photographer. He volunteers the talents and skills he developed to the production of this Olympic insert – which, over the years, has become not only a carrier of news, but a certificate of recognition for outstanding achievements within the organization, as well as an Armenian historical document.

This year marks the 30th time he has held a notebook in his hand, slung a camera over his shoulder, and recorded all he’s seen during the weekend to recreate what’s in the air in our community. He calls this past Olympics in New Jersey one of the best, and says that this year’s 16-page insert took 12 days to complete. In it, he furnished real news and sentiments about our AYF family in an age where the Armenian papers are inundated with press releases printed verbatim.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom right before this year’s Olympics. Below, he describes how he began this 30-year tradition, describes what goes into the production of the insert, and shares insights on the Games as witnessed from the eyes of one who has seen, heard and absorbed his surroundings so he can describe it to others later. His reminiscences and observations give us a perspective about where we AYFers have been and where we are going.

As has often been said, Armenians can often be quick to criticize and slow to praise. For being both an Olympic annalist and analyst, Tom deserves our praise and appreciation for his ongoing volunteerism and infectious zest. While reporting the news, he has also managed to establish himself as a documentarian of our times, and a catalyst and cheerleader for our youth.

Lucine Kasbarian: For the past three decades Armenian Weekly subscribers have enjoyed reading a special edition of this newspaper that you instituted and perpetuate. This September marked the 30th year that you have been covering the AYF Olympic activities with your articles and photography. How did this tradition begin?

Tom Vartabedian: I didn’t really institute it, but I perpetuated it. It really began with { Jimmy Tashjian] and James Mandalian. But more so Jimmy Tashjian. Both of them were editors of the Weekly when I found them at the old Hairenik Building at 212 Stuart Street in Boston, back when I was a student at Boston University. So I started corresponding forty years ago, actually, in 1960 as an AYFer reporting on chapter events, and submitting articles on human interest. In those days, they had an AYF page, and they relied upon AYFers on local levels to fill the page each week. I belonged to the old Somerville, Mass. “Nejdeh” AYF chapter, and since I was a journalism major at BU, my chapter appointed me as their scribe. I started reporting on all sorts of chapter activities from the “educationals: to sporting events. We were very well-rounded back then. The AYF was really in its vibrant years. Each member was involved in some facet of chapter activity, whether it was social, educational or athletic.

LK: Those were the days when AYFers did it all.

TV: That’s right, and of course that’s a whole other story. My first Olympics was in 1963, when I scored one total point. That’s all I ever got in AYF competitions. I took fourth place in tennis beating an athlete from Providence.

LK: That makes you a bona fide AYF Olympian.

TV: You know, if you stopped and looked at most AYF Olympic Kings or Queens, most of them scored no or very few points. But they devoted their energy, enthusiasm, and efforts to making the Olympics and the organization and community what it is today. So I’d like to think of myself more with them as opposed to, say, the athleticism.

LK: That’s a great point. Tom, if you have not yet been named Olympic King, your should be.

TV: I haven’t given it thought, actually. With all deference to the Governing Body, I think they way they are doing it these days is very nice. The Olympic Kings and Queens are selected from the communities that are hosting the Olympics in any given year. One of my greatest joys is getting to do a profile on the Olympic Kings and Queens. A couple of times the chapters were very remiss in not selecting a Queen, and I brought it to their attention time and again that if they are to honor a King, they must honor a Queen, and then they went back to it for a brief time. They gave the age-old excuse that they were hard-pressed for candidates, but that’s hogwash. You can always find an appropriate female whenever you find an appropriate male. I enjoy talking to those people because we are from the same generation and the same breed. The older people enjoy being profiled in the paper just as much as the young.

LK: And why shouldn’t they? AYFers of all ages are integral to the history of our organization.

TV: And in most cases, the biggest reward of being crowned an AYF Olympic King or Queen is so that their children and grandchildren and the younger generation see what the epitome of an AYF Olympian is. It doesn’t get any better than that. And in many cases, Kings and Queens dedicate their medal to either their dad, mom or somebody who has preceded them in this life. In several cases when I spoke with Kings and Queens, many were going down to the cemetery to drape the medals over the tombstones of their loved ones and share that hallowed moment with their parents.

LK: That certainly helps us understand how much it means to be recognized as an AYF Olympic King or Queen. What was the reaction to the beginnings of what became an Olympic insert in the Weekly? How did people respond?

TV: Jimmy was doing it all by himself. He was the editor of the Weekly for 25 years. The man was an institution and an absolute writing machine. A great intellect, a great mind, and a great AYFer all the way through. He started doing it, and then through my corresponding, I embarked on a career in journalism, which I attribute to my infant days at the Weekly. I liked it very much, and noted that other guys like William Saroyan also got their start through the Weekly. It was the organ that opened the doors for young writers testing the waters. Jimmy never edited the copy. He let it go the way you wrote it, and that built up your enthusiasm. That’s how it all got started.

LK: Did you submit clips from the Weekly when you went on your first job interview?

TV: Oh yes, You know, I spent a year in an Armenian monastery. I was the first student to spend a year as an American-born Armenian at the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna, Austria.

LK: Your name just happens to be Vartabedian, too.

TV: Coincidental, isn’t it? I wrote a series of seven articles on the monks. That evolved into other kinds of writing. Soon after, Jimmy asked me if I could help him out. He used to publish an issue devoted to the Olympics (which then had four pages) and it used to come out the week that the Olympics took place. He’d go back to the office on Monday after the games and by Wednesday it would be all wrapped up.

LK: In that way, deadlines haven’t changed much at the Weekly.

TV: That’s true. And I covered the tennis, golf and swimming for him. And he did track and field. But he also had other people write stories, too. One was Angel Perethian from Providence. She was an institution back in the 1960s. She prepared a People-Places type of column. She submitted a page full of names, and it looked like a telephone book by the time she was done with it. She’d report on who she met in the hotel lobby and who was getting married. People who couldn’t make it to the Olympics would eat it up. Readers would invariably look to the Weekly to see if their names were in there. So it got to be the social page as well as the athletic page. And then Jimmy and I worked in tandem the same way until 1976. Then he left the Weekly, and from ’76 on, I made a section out of it, and it went from 8 pages to 12 to the 16 we have now. And I’ve kept it up pretty much by myself, though I do get some help from time to time. People contribute pieces to it. The two years I missed was when AYF Olympics was held in California years ago, and when my son was born.

LK: So readers starved that year.

TV: Well, they got several people to fill in.

LK: You see? Though there is only one Tom Vartabedian, reinforcements do arrive on the scene when necessary.

TV: You’re right. In our community, sometimes people take it for granted that you will always be there. Putting out the special edition is a lot of work. Each issue I produce is a personal tribute to James Tashjian. I dedicate each issue in my own way and in my own mind to Jimmy.

LK: He deserves it. He has been a role model and pioneer for us. What are some of the things you have enjoyed most about your job?

TV: Obviously the people, that goes without saying. I had the privilege of photographing my third generation of Armenian-American athletes at the last Olympics. That was a thrill of a lifetime. There is also the satisfaction of developing creativity with words and expressions – developing a style that people enjoy reading. In telling it the way it is in their vernacular. I also enjoy producing the section for those who can’t make it to an Olympics to feel as if they’re actually there like a sideline spectator. People tell me that they feel this because of the realism I bring to the coverage, and that’s very gratifying. This isn’t an ego trip, I just love to develop words and ideas and catch stories about our athletes. Many of them go unheralded. They’re unsung heroes. If we don’t put some of these athletes on pedestals and give them their day in the sun, then who’s going to do it? That’s what our organ is for. It’s for the AYFers to cultivate and enjoy. Organs have a tendency to be very political and this is one way of deviating from that a little bit, and making it more for the kids. And the adults like reading about the kids, especially if its their sons and daughters. Being there gives me a great opportunity to get together with my friends from Merrimack Valley that I don’t get to see often enough. And I don’t get to travel very much, and this has been an opportunity to leave Haverhill and explore other cities and states. I probably would not have visited Detroit, Toronto, Philadelphia or Chicago or any of the other sites if it had not been for the Olympics.

LK: Based on that, have you seen differences in Armenian community activity or the way that things are run at the Olympics from chapter to chapter?

TV: I find that each one tries to outdo the other, especially in terms of hospitality. Each chapter enjoys their bragging rights. You might hear the ladies say that “Our choereg is better than their choereg,” or “our spread was more lavish than theirs.” It’s all good-natured rivalry. I’m very fortunate that the Weekly has 16 pages devoted to something like this. Being in the journalism business, most of our stories are hacked, and the pictures are reduced to the size of a postage stamp because of space constraints. It’s a rare opportunity to see something produced as close to how you envisioned and produced it – which might not happen elsewhere. It’s nice to sit at a typewriter and type as much as you want without cutting back on words to fit.

LK: How involved are you in determining how the finished insert will look?

TV: We each do our part, the photo compositors, the editor, everyone as a team. Many times I find myself going to the Hairenik to lay out the pages, and remember many 2-3:00 a.m. burning-the-midnight-oil final moments getting the issue together. Once you’ve been doing it this long, you have it down to a science. I know where I’m going with it. Ever since Jimmy left, I’ve worked with eight different editors. Many of them have known very little about sports, or haven’t attended the Olympic weekends. So they have relied upon my intuition and experience to present it. In the first 15 years of my journalism career, I was a sports writer for the Haverhill Gazette. So I know how to write and photograph sports. It was an easy transition to go into the Olympics doing what I’d do every day of the week.

LK: What are some of the challenges involved in producing this edition?

TV: Working it around a full-time job, family obligations, and my weekend wedding photography business. When I’m producing the Olympics edition, I work 16-hour days. It takes me a good 14 days to put the issue out. During that time, I wrote 18-20 stories, and develop about 50 photos in my darkroom.

LK: People who don’t have another profession would consider that rapid turnaround.

TV: The worst part about it is the burnout. You’re working eight hours a day at your regular newspaper job writing all day long, and then you come home and sit behind the typewriter to start the Olympics edition and work another 6-7 hours.

LK: Is it a challenge to find new ways to describe what’s happening at the Olympics year after year?

TV: There are only so many things you can do. One year, instead of writing about the winners, I decided to write about everyone who finished last with the motto that when you participate in the AYF, everyone’s a winner. Well, it backfired. All the winners complained that they didn’t get written up in the paper. So I went back to the old way, recognizing that if the athletes train hard enough to win an event or three gold medals, they deserve to be acknowledged.

LK: There are always 10 great things going on simultaneously at the Olympics for athletes and guests, much less for someone covering the activities. Being vigilant takes discipline. Nobody is pushing you or compensating you. Few people would put themselves in your shoes when they’d rather go out to dinner with friends or kef at the bar than look for the next interview.

TV: As much as I’m there to have a good time, this is a job. Otherwise, I’d go home with an empty notebook.

LK: What does the AYF Olympics mean to you? What keeps bringing you back year after year?

TV: The extravaganza of the whole weekend. The spirit. I find my Armenian batteries recharged. If I weren’t reporting on it, I’d still be there. Above and beyond everything else, it’s giving the athletes the recognition they deserve, and documenting their finest moments. And their lonely moments, too. The agony of defeat sometimes makes for an even better story than the joy of victory…somebody who tries very hard but just didn’t quite measure up. We have athletes who plod along, who are lapped ten times by the winner. But when they cross the finish line, the people in the stands get up and give that athlete a standing ovation. That’s a real tribute for anybody. That person to me is more worthy of a story than somebody who wins a gold medal time after time. If we don’t write about these types of people, it’s like how a survivor of the Genocide feels when his or her trials are not acknowledged. If we don’t document these stories, they’re going to be lost. These kids will always remember the story. It’s nice to run into them in the lobby and have them recount the time you sat down and interviewed them.

LK: I admire our alumni who are in touch with up-and-coming AYFers. Their influence on the kids is invaluable. And you, through your Olympic coverage, have found a way to remain connected to the newest generation and the forces that drive them.

TV: Each one of us has a certain penchant. And each of us should invest out talents and knowledge into the organization and give something back to the heritage that gave us a wealth of energy. Each of us can contribute something, from baking the choereg for the pastry table, to counseling and advising juniors, to coaching the athletes. Everyone should bet involved. For me, seeing the kids running their guts out puts a smile on my face. I know there’s a future for us.

LK: What kinds of changes have you noticed in the AYF Olympics over the yeas, both good and bad?

TV: The biggest change has been the depreciation of athletes and of interest. The Olympic games have become very lack-luster in attendance and participation. It’s no longer the Rock of Ages. It’s really become a glorified arena for college and high school athletes, and the not-so-good athletes have become intimidated as a result. Many don’t participate because they might think they are making fools of themselves, which is far from the truth. It’s a purely psychological roadblock for them, many being petrified of competing against heavy hitters. It’s more important to participate than to place in what I consider to be the greatest event this or any other ethnic organization has.

LK: Have you seen a rise in the number of ringers (athletes who are recruited into the organization for the purpose of participating in the AYF Olympics)?

TV: A few chapters will bring in athletes – some who are part Armenian, some who have no Armenian blood whatsoever – for the purpose of gaining points at the Olympics. These athletes don’t take an interest in chapter activity. They are just there to fun that weekend and score points. You never see them again. Some chapters even venture into other territories to scope out athletes as well.

LK: What do you think should be done about it?

TV: Our chapters should motivate that recruit into taking an assertive role in the chapter and community by exposing that athlete to other venues in the AYF. Once you’ve got them in the palm of your hand through sports, make him or her social director or involve them in Hai Tahd work. Take an interest in the athlete so he or she can become a contributing force in the overall welfare of the organization. I don’t see this happening very often. On the other hand, many athletes, such as Rich Chebookjian – one of our all-time greatest athletes – will be the first to tell you that if it wasn’t for the Olympics, he never would have joined the AYF. And if it wasn’t for the AYF, he wouldn’t be the Armenian he is today. By virtue of the Olympics, he became an outstanding AYF member, junior advisor – an all-around diversified AYFer. There are many stories like theis, and thankfully, they are the majority. I would like to see the recruits - which are a minority – join this majority.

LK: When I participated in the Olympics as a member of the NJ “Arsen” Chapter, I recall the ways in which the AYF I knew during the year manifested itself during the Olympics. Every aspect was represented: educational and political activities too place beside athletic and social ones. Nowadays, isn’t Olympics becoming more of an R-rated, MTV-style weekend? I never saw so much skin before.

TV: You’ve noticed it, too? It has become quite a fashion ball. Now 12 and 13 year olds are trying to look 17, and the 17 year olds are trying to look even older. The moms and dads are watching by the sidelines and their teeth are falling out in disbelief that so-and-so looks like that. That’s not the athletic element. The AYF Olympics has become more of a social than an athletic weekend.

LK: Does it seem to be less of a family oriented weekend to you than it used to be?

TV: It’s becoming a very extravagant affair. Rooms are in the vicinity of $125 a night. Back a generation or two ago, you’d havbe 6-8 people pile into a room. You don’t have that anymore. Back in Popken Hachigian’s time, he was telling me no one even heard of a hotel. They slept in homes.And they didn’t even have cars. They had one jalopy, chapters would pile in, and that’s how the Olympics became a trailblazer for what we have today. Money doesn’t seem to be an object with these kids. $20 dances, $70 package deals. One year, there was a Lamborghini that belonged to an AYFer parked outside the hotel. But when you stop and think about it, more and more marriages have come about because of the AYF Olympics and because of Camp Haiastan. These are beautiful places to meet people. And certainly, the games have become more sophisticated in terms of equipment than they were in bygone eras. In the early years, one pair of black B.F. Goodrich sneakers were all these athletes had. Today, you have different shoes (known as footgear) for every sport, and these shoes go for upwards of $100 a pair. Most of your prima donna athletes belong to an organized sport and have 5-6 pairs of these types of shoes. The equipment has certainly influenced the games. Also, the crowd seems to be getting younger, and I am not sure that their behavior is always the best. On the down side, many 14-year olds stay in rooms un-chaperoned for the entire weekend, for example, and I hear profanities in the elevators. At some of the events held, young people are not carded, and parties turn into boozefests. I see some disintegration of Armenian values. I’m not sure how it should be done, but these issues need to be resolved.

LK: No one likes to hear it about their own kids, but I am sure many steering committees can tell us about some of the damage done in hotels by our little darlings. It appears that guardians were never so necessary, and I hope that parents and organizations alike take note of these behaviors and address them. I’ve noticed athletes nowadays developing the “in your face” style of competitive athleticism they see in professional sports. Do you think team events have helped develop AYF team spirit and sportsmanship? My generation remembers the Tug of War competitions quite fondly.

TV: Olympics is still very individualized. The governing body did away with Tug of War, and unfortunately, softball isn’t even a pointed event. Points should be given for softball and I think the governing body should reevaluate that stance. The alumni events are very haphazard. Women’s tennis and golf have dwindled; you can count the number of entrants on one hand. Those events may be phased out of the Olympics in the future. Alumni golf, on the other hand, has soared to incredible heights. They get 40-50 guys out there. On the track there is the 100 meter dash and the mile for alumni participants. What I would like to see are medals awarded to alumni who are out there giving it their all. We need to urge alumni to participate in these events, especially the women. I’d like to see more relays added to field events, such as combining scores from four teammates’ shot-put throws.

LK: I recall a lot of fraternity in days past. When we used to march down the track during the opening ceremonies, and every chapter gave its own “performance” as it passed by the spectators in the grandstands. The stands would be full and friends would come to cheer on their teammates in the infield. The victorious chapter would perform a regional dance at the Grand Ball. What’s happening?

TV: We have two very distinct problems which have contributed to the lack of interest in the Olympics. Every chapter should be mandated to wear a uniform and not go out there like a vagabond. Very few chapters have uniforms. Spectators have no idea who is competing. We need to print programs so spectators can follow them. All the numbers assigned to athletes should be included in the program so that you can see that number 45 is from Merrimack Valley, identify that athlete as one of your own, and cheer them on. As it is, the people in the stands have no idea who the athletes are. Michael Najarian has done an outstanding job announcing the proceedings on the track and field for the past 20 years. He is a repository of knowledge and another AYF Olympics institution. He does his part, and clarifications need to be made in these other areas.

LK: Today, Armenians young and old may not identify with the notion of providing pro bono services to the community. Please explain why you continue producing this special edition and serving as a columnist for the Armenian Weekly when there is no financial compensation.

TV: Being in the profession, I can recognize how the future of journalism is taking shape. It’s not as healthy an institution as it used to be. They say that one of the reasons why the Weekly and other ethnic publications aren’t making it is because of the lack of volunteer correspondents. These people are needed in order to feed the paper with information about their respective communities. We don’t have that luxury anymore for some reason. It’s not so much that people mind not getting paid,, it’s that they don’t want to take the time to make it all happen. I guess I am one of the exceptions. I’ve always done it, I haven’t asked for a nickel, and have in fact dug into my own pockets to cover costs such as developing film, for example. I pay for my own expenses at the Olympics other than the hotel room, which the AYF graciously gives me in exchange for my services. I don’t think about kickbacks. I know that ethnic papers are in trouble all over the place. I’m just trying to do my share to keep things solvent. I wish others would follow a similar approach and take advantage of the paper, and use the organ to launch and perpetuate their careers. Having a vehicle like this is a real luxury.

LK: Your humorous column, “Poor Tom’s Almanac” has been in effect since 1970. What got you started on it?

TV: We can all use more humor and see the lighter side of things. We often take ourselves and the world too seriously. We need writers like Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck to lighten things up a bit. In that column, I try to be myself, write simply, and find a common denominator with other people. When you strike a mutual chord, people are more apt to appreciate what you have to say. I get my inspiration from William Saroyan. If I could patent myself after anybody who has influenced my life other than Jimmy Tashjian, it would be him. When I look back at the Olympics, I remind myself of one thing. The best race of all isn’t the mile or the hundred-meter dash. It’s the Armenian race. The race of identity and self-awareness.

LK: Tom, we have benefited a great deal thanks to your willingness to devote time and energy as a successful journalist who has brought your talents back to the Armenian community. I hope that people take the opportunity to get to know elder statesmen like you in an effort to discover our rich AYF past and understand how it got where it is today. As an AYF alumnae and occasional correspondent for the Armenian Weekly, I want to thank you on behalf of the AYF and the Armenian Weekly for the service you do for our youth and our community, and for the fine example you set by blending your work ethic with your dedication to the Armenian Cause. The Armenian Weekly and AYF Olympics just wouldn’t be the same without you.

TV: Thank you.