When Benjamin V. Amirkhanian founded the William Saroyan Society in 1985, he did it to teach others about writing but also to help his community understand the importance of their heritage.
Mr. Amirkhanian is described by his family as a calm, kind and considerate man whose devotion to his community lasted until his death on Dec. 24 in Fresno. He was 101.
As a result of Mr. Amirkhanian’s deep passion for teaching the community about William Saroyan, annual festivals and tours of the neighborhood where the Armenian author lived were organized. The festivals included writing contests that Mr. Amirkhanian’s son, Charles, said allowed his dad to help young writers discover their own stories – often of immigrant journeys.
“He would have people go to schools and read a Saroyan story and the kids would write their own story about whatever touched their lives,” Charles Amirkhanian said. “He had Hmong kids and Mexican kids, and everyone would be writing a story.”
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Winning essays from the festivals were published in The Bee, and winners included children as young as sixth-graders. The festivals included one-act plays and book reviews; Mr. Amirkhanian wanted to honor the life and work of a man whose stories related to many.
“Dad wanted to instill in kids in Fresno that they could be writers the way he wanted to be when he was in high school,” Charles Amirkhanian said. “I think a lot of people got inspired by that.”
Dad wanted to instill in kids in Fresno that they could be writers the way he wanted to be when he was in high school.
Son Charles Amirkhanian
Mr. Amirkhanian was known for his dynamic and flexible personality, doing everything from advancing the William Saroyan Society to working many years for the postal service and enjoying a pastime of tree grafting. He was a U.S. Army veteran and also was a founding member of the board of directors of the Fresno Dance Repertory Association in 1964, later known as the Fresno Ballet Company. He was chairman of the board for seven terms and served for 20 years.
The organization served as an umbrella for different groups where upwards of 200 dancers were involved.
“You have to understand something about Mr. Amirkhanian … and his whole family,” said Tom Boyajian, a former Fresno City Council member. “They are very into the arts and music and culture. I think in Saroyan, (Mr. Amirkhanian) found somebody that he respected.” Mr. Amirkhanian even worked tirelessly to get a school named after Saroyan.
Boyajian remembers his years on the city council when Mr. Amirkhanian would often bring up ideas for events in the city, often related to the William Saroyan Society. In a proclamation noting his various city activities and contributions, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin proclaimed July 19, 2015, as “Benjamin Amirkhanian Day.”
“I think he was the kind of guy that would do things for the betterment of the community,” Boyajian said. “That’s the kind of man he was.”
Early setbacks, career
Mr. Amirkhanian realized he wanted to teach writing when he was still on the newspaper staff at Roosevelt High School. But before he graduated from what used to be Fresno State College in 1937, now Fresno State, he was told not to pursue an education degree or a teaching credential because he wouldn’t be able to use it.
“Because he was Armenian, they wouldn’t let him teach,” his son said. “They said no Armenians, no blacks, no Jews could teach.”
Charles Amirkhanian said it was an era when Fresno, like many places, was divided. Recent immigrant families had to live in certain parts of the city, and it stayed that way until after World War II.
“My father grew up in that environment, and he was very good-natured about it,” Charles Amirkhanian said.
When he graduated from college, Mr. Amirkhanian realized that he indeed wouldn’t be hired as a teacher. He took a job at a local post office in Fresno in 1938.
In November 1940 he married Eleanor Kaprielian, who died in 2007 at age 90.
After he was drafted into the Army in 1942, he worked as a postal officer. He was discharged as a captain in 1945 and then served in the Army Reserves for 16 years. He had risen to the rank of major by the time he retired in 1962.
As a post office clerk, Mr. Amirkhanian learned to sort mail by hand. There was no machine to do that work and he became an “expert,” his son said. In those days, there were no ZIP codes, just city zone numbers, and streets had no east, south, west or north directions for home addresses.
“When we were growing up, we would ask him where so-and-so was,” Charles Amirkhanian said. “If you could give him the street address, he knew exactly what block it was in.”
Mr. Amirkhanian’s postal service career lasted until he retired in 1973 as manager of the Tower Station post office.
The ‘tall, gentle man’
Mr. Amirkhanian is remembered by his niece Nancy Youdelman, a retired Fresno State professor, as a father figure. Youdelman’s own father died when she was young.
With everything that he did around town, including playing tennis until he was about 80 years old, Youdelman wondered where he got the energy.
“It was pretty amazing, because he seems to just keep going,” Youdelman said. “It’s not like longevity ran in the family.”
Boyajian said he admired Mr. Amirkhanian ever since the time he met him when he was around 7 or 8 years old and became friends with his son.
“I looked up to him, and he was the typical, really good father figure,” Boyajian said. “I thought Charles was lucky to have him as a father.”
He was the kind of the guy that would do things for the betterment of the community.
Former Fresno Council Member Tom Boyajian
Boyajian says he remembers once when Mr. Amirkhanian took him to the backyard to show him the different varieties of fruits he grew on his trees through grafting.
“Instead of just having an apricot (tree), he had an apricot peach (tree),” he said.
Charles Amirkhanian said his dad once grew about 17 varieties of fruits on a single tree.
Youdelman remembers Mr. Amirkhanian saying the weather in Fresno was what he loved most about the city. He thought it was perfect for growing things.
Mr. Amirkhanian’s constant involvement in his children’s school activities led Boyajian to appoint him to the Fresno High School Alumni Association, despite never having been a student there.
At Mr. Amirkhanian’s 100th birthday celebration, Boyajian was chosen to share with the audience a few words about his best friend’s dad.
“He was a tall, gentle guy; his family always came first, but he was always proud of his community,” Boyajian said. “It’s a big loss for the community, because he was always involved in making the community the best that he could make it.”
Benjamin V. Amirkhanian
Born: July 17, 1915
Died: Dec. 24, 2016
Occupation: Retired supervisor, Tower Station Post Office; Founder of William Saroyan Society
Survivors: Son Charles, daughter Jane, many nieces and nephews
Services: 4 p.m. Jan. 21 at Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church, 3673 N. First St., Fresno. Remembrances may be sent to the Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church or the Other Minds Music Festival, 55 Taylor St., San Francisco CA, 94102.