Atken Armenian: A man who Made not Just a Difference – But so Many Differences

By Armenag Topalian 30 December 2008

 

Atken enjoyed a rich education, starting in Cairo at the English School, on to King’s School, Ely in England for Advanced levels.  He read Oil Technology at the prestigious Imperial College, London and then continued further studies in the United States. 

 

By Armenag Topalian 30 December 2008

 

Atken enjoyed a rich education, starting in Cairo at the English School, on to King’s School, Ely in England for Advanced levels.  He read Oil Technology at the prestigious Imperial College, London and then continued further studies in the United States. 

 

He started work as an oil engineer in Edmonton, Alberta. It is at this time that he met and married Hasmig, and had two children Ani and Van. His family was most dear to him, and he cultivated strong bonds with his ancestry and immediate family. He moved on to a Doctorate in Education at the University of Alberta, permitting him to launch a teaching career which profoundly influenced many young people to build their future. It also awoke in Atken this deep care for the less fortunate. From the roots of his family came his love and devotion to music and culture. All this prepared him for his ultimate mission in life, to help build his “home” as he called it, Armenia, for which he put heart and soul.

 

When assessing the impact of Atken’s life, one thing is absolutely guaranteed.  Attempts to list all his achievements is bound to be incomplete, and any analysis an underestimate of how he touched the lives of others.  He committed a significant proportion of his own income on diverse community activities, and then devoted even greater effort and time to helping those in need.

 

From his school days, he discovered his love for his people, their culture, language, and subsequently the republic that was born from the collapse of the USSR, pursuing this relentlessly with passion, dedication, complete commitment and huge energy.  Just as he flew over potholes in Armenian provincial roads driving at breakneck speeds, he skimmed over the many practical problems in his projects that would have deterred so many others. There were no 'ifs' or 'buts' with him. He would not be fazed by received wisdom that said it could not be done; he did not tolerate pretension or pomposity.  If he met resistance, he found an alternative way which, often, meant rolling up his sleeves and taking on the task himself. Even then, he had a knack of finding the right person to carry on the job, to deliver support to some of the most distressed at a most difficult time in the birth of the Republic of Armenia.  His only conditions to take on a challenge were that it had good purpose, made sense and would be directly beneficial.

 

His main area of activity was in education.  As Dean of Extension Studies at the American University of Armenia (AUA), he gave the department a much wider brief than the management would have envisaged (visit the AUA website as a very small example for 'This day in Armenian History' feature).  He repeated this again at the French University there.  As University Registrar, he paid out of his pocket the tuition fees of countless students who could not afford them. While working full-time for these institutions, he travelled to Gyumri each weekend over many years to teach English to the young people there. He set up on behalf of an UK Armenian trust a system of scholarships in Gyumri and Vanadzor so that today 400 young persons in each city receive education they would not afford otherwise.

 

Education was a broad palette for him.  He devised with others the first set of new children’s books that broke the mould of the Soviet system of teaching.  This extended to a book on standards and etiquette as society struggled with the transition from a planned totalitarian regime to the confusion of a market economy.  His interests were wide: one of his last projects was to undertake the costs of publishing Ghevont Alishan’s book on pre-Christian religions and faiths in Armenia.

 

His focus on young people was constant.  Thanks to his publicity, the AGBU in London provided support to the Arts Academy in Gyumri and directed its funds to replace the central heating in the Lord Byron School with a more modern gas unit.  He directed funds towards replacing the roof and furniture of an Orphanage in a village near Vanadzor. He gathered money to purchase brass instruments for a band, as well as traditional musical instruments (such as the duduk and shvi) for talented young musicians to pursue their interest in folk music, paying all the fees of their teacher after raising external donations.  He settled the expenses for young musicians to travel to auditions, to purchase scores and even contributed for the talented Van Quartet to participate in a summer school in Canada.  He was on the committee of the Friends of the Armenia Philharmonic Orchestra, and sponsored the Speghani Orphans Choir to travel to Italy where they won second prize in a competition.

 

Even more importantly, he was keenly aware of the plight of the rural and small town poor. He often had to travel through various areas such as Lori province, and many witnessed him disbursing clothes and money to needy families that he had only just met, and to various orphanages.  There were women who specifically knitted for him, including his aunt Hilda.  He was instrumental in getting piped water supplies to three villages, Khatchig near the Nakhichevan border (and thereby retaining the precious water within Armenia), Goghtanig village in Vayots Dzor province (which then commenced goat cheese local production) and Aygut village in Gegharkounik province.  He ensured the long-term income of many needy families by providing them with cows and paying for all the rearing expenses for one year.   He translated a layman’s medical reference manual so that those with no ready access to doctors could look after their health.

 

Because he was so effective in this philanthropy, individual and collective donors willingly sought him out and gave him money absolutely safe in the knowledge that it would always be put to good use.  They knew he instinctively would go direct to find the source of greatest need and give the support needed without the unnecessary involvement of intermediaries or avoidable expenses. He had drive, common sense, strength in character and conviction.  Yes, he was a character who could hold strong views, particularly with those who had an unrealistic vision of their importance, yet for many he was inspirational.  He delivered reliably and delivered good outcomes. He had no desire to make a name for himself yet made a reputation of conviction, integrity, and for bounteous caring for his fellow men by willingly giving so much of himself.

 

What an extraordinary man!  What shining light of a life!  What a legacy that literally hundreds of people have had their lives improved, even transformed, by Atken!  What an example for us all!  And what a loss to all others who but for cruel fate would have benefited from his work!

 

Atken, we salute you.       

 

 

3 comments
  1. We will miss this wonderful
    We will miss this wonderful man of intelect , humour , kindness and that smile on his face . he gave so much , never expecting any thing in return ,
    I have known Atken since the days when he lived in Alberta , then we would meet in Toronto , discuss politics and religion .
    Last 10 years I speant hours in his office at AUA in Yerevan , and when ever I needed a place to stay , I was always welcomed to stay at his house .
    I will miss you my dear friend . you have many legacies.
    With all my respect .
    Vrejouhy

    1. thank you Vrejouhi for a

      thank you Vrejouhi for a wonderful tribute to our friend Atken. he was a rare human being and a great armenian. / ara

  2. I met Atken in Cyberspace

    I met Atken in Cyberspace, in the early 90’s, in a forum called Hayastan and Groong. I met him in person (with Hasmik) at our house in Ottawa in 1996, when he had asked me to prepare a program in Canada for a scholar from AUA. He was a “trail blazer” for all of us. He showed us the way. While we sat comfortably in Canada wondering what to do for Armenia, he moved there in the early dark years and helped. My wife and I will always remember him as a kind, generous, hospitable and jolly man. Atken loved to laugh, had a great sense of humour and had a great heart We fondly remember staying with him in their beautiful house in Yerevan, drinking the wines of their vineyards, visiting his varied projects all over Armenia, and yet, many of the achievements described by Mr. Topalian, I knew nothing about, and I won’t take more of your time listing the ones I know about. He acted in silence and never boasted. He was the true example of charity (don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing) He lives in our memory, through his family, his children and grand children If you allow me the intended pun: Atken was “the Armenian par excellence” A man who did not just make a difference! A man who helped build a better future for all of us.

    Antoine and Sheila TERJANIAN, Ottawa

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