BY MARAL NASHALIAN-ARSENIAN
What can I say about Unger Vahan DerHagopian that the Pasadena Armenian community doesn’t already know? However, I’d like to share my thoughts of the “Hayrig” that I knew for almost two decades.
Ung. Vahan had a work ethic that was unmatched by any other I had seen. He had a laborious nature about him and seemed always eager to serve. He took the stresses of running the Armenian Community Center, the “agoump,” in stride. He lived his life there in humble servitude. He was not intimidated by any task – large or small. He was our “go-to guy.” It was undoubtedly a tiring duty to be in charge of the agoump all the time and to have all those who pass through its doors depend on him for even the littlest things. He was the person you could count on for the day’s news. He was our calendar of events, our photocopy master, our sourj and soujoukh sandwich chef and so, so much more. He would begin his day at the Center very early and he was the last one out. He never seemed to tire. Although, the last few years I could see that those hours were taking its toll on him. He would seldom attend a concert or dinner/dance as a patron because he was often holding down the fort at the agoump. Many people would consider that the agoump is like their second home, but for Hayrig, it was his first and primary home.
He had a passion for writing and loved to create something to have it read by someone else for any occasion. He would practice his writings with me. I always enjoyed being his sounding board and looked forward to those special times. He had fond memories of his life in Lebanon. He would recount stories of the way things were in Beirut. He would call those days of simplicity “anoush orer.” As a youngster, I enjoyed listening to his vivid stories and would envision them in my mind’s eye.
Unger Vahan also held an appreciation for the theatrical arts. He was our gatekeeper over the years while we rehearsed until late hours for this production or that. He always had sneak previews of Hamazkayin’s coming attractions. I will never forget how he would walk us out to our cars to keep us from harm’s way and how he would watch over us until we drove off out of his sight on those late nights. Hayrig had mentioned to me on a few occasions about his opinion that the Gomideh should dedicate an artistic event to honor the memory and the talents of Baron Harutioun Kaprielian, notable community theatre actor and master of the art of recitation. I couldn’t have agreed with him more. As a fellow community theatre actor myself, but with considerably less experience, Baron Harutioun was someone I aspired to be like. We had shared the stage on several occasions. He even portrayed my father in Andon Chekhov’s “The Proposal” in the mid 90’s. Unger Vahan admired Baron Harutioun’s talents and contributions to the world of performance art. They were alike in their mission to tell a story. I miss them both.
Over the past twenty years, Hayrig had known me as an AYFer first and foremost, and subsequently as an ANC member, Hamazkayinagan, Lradou helper and ultimately a life-long ARS ungerouhie. After all, I was only seventeen when I entered our agoump eager to meet Armenians, make a difference through gamavor work and find a home-away-from-home – a sense of belonging. The agoump was my safe haven – my salvation and refuge from the rest of the world and its challenges – and I know Hayrig played a major role as to why those years were so “anoush” for me.
I shudder to think at how many of us took Hayrig for granted and maybe did not thank him enough or give him a hug once in a while to let him know he was needed and loved and appreciated. After the birth of my daughter in 2006, I drifted away temporarily from the agoump to focus on rearing my child. I knew that I would eventually return to my roots at the agoump and continue my work there and even introduce my daughter to the workings of the Armenian Center. Every time Hayrig would see my daughter enter the agoump with me, he would say, “Mashallah, Asdvadz bahe. Yerp beedee kas kovus yev Homenutmenagan ullas?” He would offer a sweet treat to her in the hopes of getting her to bond with him. I could not wait for the day that my daughter would get to know the Hayrig I grew to respect and love and depend on for so many years.
Hayrig was a father figure for us; a person who accepted us unconditionally, much like a parent would – flaws and all. Although Hayrig did not have any biological children of his own, we all were his children and he cared for us in a loving manner and without judgment. He was someone you did not want to disappoint. He would peer at you in a style that only he could; and that look would put you in your place as a form of discipline. He did not have to say much to let you know you were in the wrong and needed to step back in line. I loved the fact that he had old school principles and at times disliked the improper behavior that he spotted in the new generation growing up in “odaroutiun.”
As I sit here and write about Hayrig, I feel compelled to listen to Lusine Zakarian’s rendition of Sourp-Sourp in order to feel a reconnection to him. I remember driving into the agoump parking lot about a month before he passed away and noticing Hayrig’s car not in its usual spot. In fact, it was not in the lot at all. That seemed strange to me, but I didn’t question it. When a friend told me of his passing, I was at a loss for words and felt an immense sadness. I did not even know he was battling a serious illness. That’s the kind of man he was – he never showed his weakness or even talked about what troubled him. The last time I saw him was about six weeks before he died. He was the one who told me about the new agoump. He was so proud about this new accomplishment for our community. Had I known that would be our last encounter in this life, I would have hugged him with great sincerity and told him just how much he touched our lives.
I was only able to attend Hayrig’s funeral service held at the church and not the burial or hokejash. As a result, I felt like I did not have a chance to bid him a proper farewell. This must have weighed on my subconscious heavily, because only a week later Unger Vahan came to me in a dream. God works in mysterious ways and He knew of my uneasiness and brought closure for me in the sweetest way possible. Seeing him seemed to bring an ease to what quelled my heart and soul from not being able to say goodbye to my friend and “Hayrig.” I dreamt that Hayrig was at our new agoump sitting at a bench under the breezy trees and he made eye contact with me as I entered the grounds. As I approached him, we spoke to each other only through our eyes, as if to say to each other “I know. I understand and I thank you.” The soulfulness of that gaze was all I needed to say goodbye to a dear friend. I knew he was at peace.
They say that no one is indispensible. However, in this case I have to disagree. Hayrig was our friend, our confidant, our father. We depended on him like we depend on the life-giving sun that graces our every day. His absence will be felt and he will surely be missed by all those individuals who had the privilege of calling him “Hayrig.”
It was an honor knowing you Unger Vahan. May God bless you and keep you in his kingdom…until we meet again.