BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
PHILADELPHIA—When the Armenian Youth Federation gathers in Philadelphia over the Labor Day Weekend for the 77th Olympic Games, there will be more at stake besides medals and championships.
Special tribute will be paid to those women who held fort while their male counterparts were off fighting World War 2, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.
More than a dozen individuals from that era are expected to be on hand in what is being appropriately heralded as “Women of the War.” They will gather together at the alumni social Friday night and be formally introduced during opening ceremonies Sunday when they march alongside the Kings and Queens of years past.
A video is being prepared as well as a bountiful insertion in this year’s Olympic adbook, thanks to others like Debbie (Topalian) Tashjian, Tamar Kanarian and Aram Hovagimian, who’ve been working feverishly on the project. Eight of the senior women hail from Philadelphia.
“These are individuals who kept the organization functioning and mobile during a most perilous time in world history,” said Ken Topalian, a newly-anointed member of the AYF Olympics Governing Body. “To them goes the credit they richly deserve for what took place behind the scenes. Because of their vigilance and their dedication, the AYF kept its momentum and persevered. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.”
They are unsung heroines like Rosanne Chebookjian whose story mirrors others of its kind. She belonged to the South Boston Chapter during those fertile 40s and the love of her life happened to be a guy named Shant. Together, they were pioneers in the formation of Camp Hayastan and parented a most active AYF family.
Their son Richard wound up as the second leading scorer in AYF history—a chip off his dad’s athletic block—and, more recently, is coaching the Philly Sebouhs which has harbored three championships over the past four years and their first Olympic Cup.
“It’s been over 65 years for me and my memory may have faded a bit,” said Rosanne. “It was absolutely a devastating time for a young girl like myself. I wrote to many soldiers and remember a Siamanto Ball vividly. It was always a coed affair but because of the war many singles came.”
Rosanne recalled with deep sentiment those that were missing and POWs, including Kenny Kazanjian, Mourad Piligian and Phil Aslanian.
“Tears came to our eyes as each name was read,” she remembered. “South Boston later merged with Medford and Cambridge.”
And that’s when she met Shant.
Shant Chebookjian entered the service shortly after graduating from high school. Rosanne knew his sister Anahid (a great athlete) before she met him on the softball field. Shant served with the Marines and was recruited for Officers Training School. They wed after Shant got discharged and received a degree from Dartmouth at a time when education was at a premium.
The relationship grew serious as the war ended. Rosanne bided her time as a sports correspondent for The Hairenik Weekly, served five years on Central Executive, and served as treasurer for an Olympics in New York.
“We made $3,000 that year which I held against my chest as I took the midnight train from Grand Central Station to South Boston,” she traced back. “Only a few people stayed in hotels. Most of us were housed in homes.”
During the early 1940s when a number of male Providence AYFers left to serve their country, those like Anahid (Karentz) Varadian were determined to carry on their chapter’s activities. They served the executive, performed plays for the community, wrote letters, sent packages to servicemen stationed throughout the world, and kept the Olympics perpetuating. Anahid was a gold medal high jumper in her day. The girls held up a good share of the scoring during those explosive years.
“The AYF Olympics has become the major athletic and social event of the year,” said Anahid. “Memories of the past remain vivid despite the passing years. Many of our eligible members were either drafted or volunteered to serve the military.”
The 1942 Games featured the last full complement of male athletes competing in track, baseball, tennis and golf—and it was Providence which reigned supreme during this ninth edition. In the end, 43 points remained unchallenged by the remaining teams.
1943 and 1944 were conducted in modest fashion, if only to continue the Olympic tradition, until the cessation of the war. Sensibly enough, contention for the Olympics trophy was discontinued for the duration. The curtailment of our nation’s transportation system forced a toned-down version of the Olympics.
Even still, Anahid Karentz was not to be denied in her quest to keep Providence in “high gear.”
“With all the high tech equipment being used today in the high jump, back then it was a bamboo pole we had to clear, using a “scissor back over” jump,” Anahid recalled. “Our boys started returning, thus helping our chapter capture the title in 1945-47 to officially retire our first Cup.”
Anahid wound up marrying another Olympic pedigree named Haig who was serving in Germany when they began corresponding. They enjoyed a wonderful marriage, raising a prominent AYF family. Haig has since died and is remembered as a dynamic coach, educator and administrator who has a science wing dedicated in his behalf at East Cranston High School where he taught many years.
No female was faster in the dashes than Helen (Sanasarian) Sookikian who spurred the Watertown Gaidzags during the WW2 years. She set records in the 50 and 100 and won those two events repeatedly, eventually finishing with 49 points.
“Our chapter suffered from the absence of older male athletes to the war effort,” said Sookikian. “So one day, a couple of us girls decided to keep the momentum going. And that’s just what we did for the 11th annual games.”
Sanasarian was only 17 when she captured her first triple gold, setting three records in her 1944 debut. The following year, she repeated as high scorer with 15 more points.
- “We were not only training for points but records,” she said. “Lightning was beginning to strike where it was noticed. We owed it to the men serving our country to keep the AYF going and bring respect to our chapters. “
Sanasarian ran again in 1947, finishing second, and capped her career in 1948 just before her marriage to Vahram “Vee” Sookikian. It seemed married women didn’t run in the Olympics back then.
In 1984, Helen Sookikian received the culmination of AYF glory by being crowned an Olympic Queen –much to her surprise.
“I met my husband in 1945 when he was a New York Hyortik,” Sookikian reminisced. “He had come to Watertown to say goodbye to relatives on account of being called to active duty with the Army Air Corps. My sister Pauline worked with a cousin of Vee’s and invited him to the next day’s Gaidzag meeting where we met and corresponded until his discharge.”
The post-war era was a great time for AYF-ARF relations with the return of servicemen and the GI Bill of Rights. Many used to opportunity for advanced education and ultimately successful careers, giving the Armenian Community a much-needed dose of fortitude.
As to the AYF, 77 years of respectability speaks for itself. Had it not been for those catalysts during World War II, the organization might have suffered from inertia and the Philly games this year would have been a foregone conclusion.