BY PAULETTE JANIAN
I never know what might spark an idea or remembrance in me for an article which I think might be of interest to readers of the “Bar Bulletin.” This happened when I attended a September 14 wedding at the Holy Trinity Armenian Church. It was the marriage ceremony uniting Tara Paboojian, daughter of Warren and Lesa, who, at the time, was waiting for her bar exam results, and Jacob Sarabian, who was sworn in last year by family friend Judge Brian Arax. Old timers may remember Jacob’s grandfather, the late Sark Sarabian, noted agriculturalist and preeminent expert witness qualified to testify on agricultural issues in California courts.
In the beautifully redesigned patio courtyard of the Church, I noticed a fountain, gently sprinkling drops of water into a sparkling, blue pool. A bronze plaque next to it bore the title “George Mardikian Fountain.” I immediately recognized the name and remembered a jovial, portly, mustachioed gentleman I met while attending Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Until I read the dedication on the plaque, I did not realize that this Armenian immigrant had ties to Fresno, and that he had served as a trustee of the Holy Trinity Church in the 1930’s.
I knew George as a prominent citizen of San Francisco and owner of The Omar Khayam, a famous restaurant in the city, known for its Armenian cuisine. My family and I were frequent guests at the restaurant, which was actually located downstairs below the street where guests, while dining, heard the cable cars rumbling overhead, packed with tourists. The fountain plaque memorializes the contribution of George Mardikian to the post World War II founding of the Armenian National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians around the world. For his humanitarian efforts, George received the Medal of Freedom from President Harry S. Truman.
The plaque also acknowledges the contribution of a distinguished San Francisco attorney who helped George found the charitable organization: Suren M. Saroyan. Suren was a frequent visitor to the home of the Karageozians, my aunt and uncle, with whom I resided while attending law school. I remember Suren so well. Tall and slender with pure white hair and a thin mustache, always wearing a suit, starched white shirt with cuff links, bow tie, and a white handkerchief in his jacket pocket folded neatly to expose a triangle shape resembling the snowcapped tip of Mt. Ararat. He was always animated, sitting on the edge of his chair telling us stories about his life and career, punctuating each phrase with broad gestures. Always a chivalrous gentleman, he surprised me one day when he said he was on his way to the movies – to see an X-rated film! Sensing my surprise, he explained that lawyers need an open mind and must know a little about everything affecting our society.
Suren never called me Paulette. I was always “Portia,” after the protagonist in William Shakespeare’s, “The Merchant of Venice.” If you know the story, you will recall that Portia disguised herself as a man and assumed the role of a lawyer to appear in court and save a man’s life through the use of legal technicalities. I understand I am in good company, because President John Adams referred to his wife Abigail as “Portia” in his famous letters to her.
I also learned that the New England School of Law was originally known as The Portia Law School when it was founded in 1908 as a law school for women only, and it was known by that name until 1969.
Suren Saroyan was a pioneer in American-Armenian legal history. Born in Fresno, he graduated from Stanford University and was admitted to the California State Bar in 1929. He opened his law office in San Francisco, where, in the early days, his wife served as office manager, secretary, and process server. During World War II, he was named liquidation attorney for the state of California in the closure of five Japanese owned banks deemed alien property in 1941 and 1942. “That’s how Suren made his money,” I heard old timers in the Armenian community remark. In 1945, he became “of counsel” at the San Francisco law firm known as Cartwright, Saroyan. Although I was told the firm was founded by Suren, my uncle disclosed that Suren was too sentimental and emotional to be a trial attorney and all trial work was done by Robert Cartwright. The law firm, now known as Cartwright Law, continues under the leadership of Robert Cartwright Jr.
Through the Armenian National Committee, George and Suren, assisted by General Haig Shekerjian, worked tirelessly to assist over 25,000 Armenians, displaced during the War to immigrate to the United States, finding them homes and jobs. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Act, George was presented with a signing pen. The George Mardikian Fountain was established in 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. George Mardikian and Suren Saroyan lived, worked, and served the community for most of their lives in San Francisco, but they left their hearts in Fresno and are both buried here at the Ararat Cemetery.