Gregorian's wise, witty "Road to Home"

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  June 9, 2003 at 4:40 PM
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"The Road to Home" by Vartan Gregorian is a rags to riches story in the best American tradition. Gregorian was born in 1934 in Tabriz, Iran, but being an Armenian Christian was always part of a minority, sometimes tolerated, sometimes harassed and sometimes persecuted.

Gregorian was raised by his maternal grandmother, his own mother having died when he was six. His father was often absent and emotionally unavailable, so Gregorian was extremely lucky to find a succession of mentors who served as surrogate parents. Thanks to their interest in his welfare and future, he was able to pursue his education.

His grandmother was illiterate, but although she could not read to Gregorian and his little sister, she regaled them with folk tales. "I learned that the stars were human souls, living in the sky, and that each of us could choose an exclusive star. (Naturally, I chose the North Star)."

Gregorian's own star would shine brightly thanks to the virtues instilled in him by his grandmother, who told him that the three most important things in life were his honor, his reputation and his dignity. "Be proud, but not arrogant," she said. "Be polite, but not overbearing. Be self-sufficient: self-sufficient and self-confident people don't need to be jealous." As Gregorian soon found out, these were not original thoughts, but his grandmother's originality was that she practiced what she preached.

Gregorian's interest in higher education was piqued by a series of excellent teachers and his love of books. "Books freed me from my prison, transported me far away to a wonderful realm of possibilities, to a life of beauty, compassion, generosity, excitement, justice, intense passion, incessant action and fun. I lived vicariously the lives of such protagonists as Robinson Crusoe, Jean Valjean, the Count of Monte Cristo, the Three Musketeers, Romeo, Werther, Sinbad, Kim, various Armenian princes, kings, and modern-day revolutionaries, and many, many others. I traveled with them, cried with them, laughed with them, fought along with them, undertook dangerous journeys, discovered new lands, fell in love."

Gregorian soon had no need to live vicariously. He traveled and discovered new lands all by himself, starting with Lebanon. He went to the Collége Arménien in Beirut, and after a difficult start, acquired a solid education that allowed him to apply to a variety of American universities. He was accepted at Stanford University in California, where he met his wife, Clare. A gregarious, friendly, outgoing, trusting personality, Gregorian was soon the center of a group of friends, societies and activities.

After teaching at San Francisco State College, he joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin and became a full professor at the age of thirty-five. He then moved on to become the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He turned down the offer to become chancellor of Berkeley, a lifelong dream, to see through a major fundraising campaign at Penn.

It was his honesty, his dedication, and his success at fundraising that would eventually lead him to become president of the New York Public Library. The decrepit library would prove to be an enormous challenge but, as usual, Gregorian's lucky star and forceful personality enabled him, with the help of many dedicated friends and partners, to achieve his goal. His main partner in the New York Library venture was Brooke Astor, whose initial gift of $10 million set the ball rolling.

It was quite an achievement for the poor little boy from Tabriz. "I sat at Mrs. Astor's right, I looked at all the dignitaries and glamorous people, the elegant apartment, and reflected on the distance between 1699 Church Street, Tabriz, Iran and 778 Park Avenue, New York."

Yes, Gregorian had come a long way and he did it through hard work, honesty, dedication, tremendous energy and a little bit of luck. He may not have been the most aristocratic or the richest, but he was certainly one of the best-educated and most erudite men in that room.

They do say history repeats itself, and like all clichés, that one too is based on truth. In the 1980s, before Glasnost and the fall of the Communist empire, the FBI asked that librarians report any "suspicious types" for fear that enemy agents might obtain technical or scientific information from the library. Not only was this a ridiculous assumption, but it was also against the privacy policy of the New York Public Library. As Gregorian points out, "What one read was nobody's business. Even if we could overcome those hurdles, it was a fact that there were many in the great metropolis of New York who looked 'suspicious.'"

And, just like the postal workers and gas meter readers of the post-9/11 era, librarians were not trained detectives or security agents.

Needless to say, Gregorian refused, pointing out to Jim Fox, the head of the FBI in New York, that if the librarians had to report people based on their looks, they would have to report their own boss.

Eight years later, having accomplished his goal of saving the Library and putting it back on its feet, he became president of Brown University. By the time he left that job, the university was ranked among the top eight in the U.S. and had increased its endowment by 260 percent.

Gregorian has a fascinating tale to tell and, as a born raconteur, tells it well. His wit, humor, brilliant mind, wisdom, insight and honesty shine through. The chapters dealing with Iran, Lebanon and his travels throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan, are funny and poignant.

He tells the story of an illiterate who wants to buy a pair of glasses and tries on several different pairs, until finally the pharmacist asks him what kind he needs. "Reading ones," he answers. "Sir," answers the pharmacist, "first you have to learn how to read."

Gregorian's first business venture was a flop, the only thing he undertook in his life that failed. As a very young boy, he decided to export ants to American zoos to feed their anteaters. Having heard that America was very clean, he assumed that they must not have ants, and thought up what he termed his get rich quick scheme. So Gregorian and his sister collected big, black ants -- "Muslim" ants as opposed to the small, yellow "Christian" ones -- and kept them in matchboxes. When he found out his mistake, he buried the ants, giving them a "Christian" burial.

In Beirut, Gregorian worked in a restaurant for a plate of hummus or beans, often going hungry. Upon his arrival, he found that knowing Persian and Armenian would not allow him to study, so he learned French, English and Arabic and within a year had become the school director's personal assistant.

Although he lived through the exciting and often turbulent times of the Vietnam War, the student protests, and the civil rights movement, the account of his meteoric ascension to the pinnacles of academe is slowed down by detailed descriptions of the internal dissensions: his clashes with the boards of trustees, the presidents, deans and faculty of the various universities. His honesty and integrity were not universally appreciated. (One trustee even told him that they didn't think he had the social graces required of a president of the University of Pennsylvania.)

Nevertheless, this is an inspiring and remarkable memoir, proving that in America, notwithstanding the obstacles of race, religion or origin, if one has courage, dedication and perseverance, the dream can still come true.

("The Road to Home", Simon and Schuster, $29.95, 332 pages.)

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