by Jessica Brent Breed
Photo by Diana Watters
I have never met a person from whom I've not learned something,” says Arsham Ohanessian. “That may seem trite, but it's true." This openness to new ideas, experiences, and people has won Ohanessian friends the world over and helped sustain his lifelong humanitarian mission—educating people about one of the 20th century's great horrors, the Armenian Genocide.
Born in an Armenian community of Baghdad, Iraq, Ohanessian learned his first lesson very young—from his mother's story of survival during the 1915 genocide. His mother was only seven years old when she and one brother fled Turkey and began a new life in Iraq.
“My mother's stories had a profound effect on me,” says Ohanessian. The shadow of that genocide has haunted Ohanessian and moved him to devote countless hours of community service and activism to keeping alive the memory of the tragedy so it will never be repeated. Stephen Feinstein, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University, notes that Arsham's lifelong commitment grows out of a “deeply rooted moral direction that runs through his thought.”
Ohanessian's philanthropic largesse has followed the path of his activism. Over the years, he has given substantially to the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the Justice and Peace Studies program at St. Thomas University. And this year, he made a generous gift to endow the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts, named in part for his late wife.
The endowment will support teaching, research, and outreach activities that establish a base of understanding for bridging the ethnic, national, racial, and religious differences that divide people and for promoting peace and harmony among the people and nations of the world.
“This remarkable gift comes straight from the heart of a man with a deep and genuine passion for peace and justice,” said Steven Rosenstone, College of Liberal Arts dean. “In establishing this chair, Mr. Ohanessian has articulated his vision of a world in which mass slaughter is but a distant memory and human communities, however different they may be, work together for the common good. He also is testifying to his belief in the power of education to create such a world.”
In his life, Ohanessian is as generous as in his philanthropy. Partly as a way of transcending his dark past, he has lived by the dictum “Find out who your neighbors are and be kind to them." Throughout his world travels and life adventures, he remains an ardent “people person,” saying, “Where there are people, there's an opportunity for me.”
As a young man yearning to know about the people beyond the borders of his own country, Ohanessian found his first job translating for the British military in Iraq. The British were building an oil pipeline through the Middle East and readily enlisted the help of eager, bright Iraqi men. At nineteen years old the assistant to the chief administrator, Ohanessian had 150 people reporting to him. “The British are very good at delegating responsibility,” he laughs.
Using his British connections, Ohanessian found a job in England, where he met his wife, a Massachusetts native working for the U.S. ambassador. After moving to Boston to be married, in 1956 the couple moved to Minnesota, where Ohanessian became a consultant to companies such as Whirlpool and 3M.
He made a career of saving businesses from bankruptcy and helping corporations to reinvigorate their work ethic. In more than fifty years working in human resources management, Ohanessian became such an expert that he has even submitted case studies to universities such as Harvard.
Now in retirement (and enjoying time to play the violin and read ancient poetry), Ohanessian remains as devoted as ever to his interest in people. This neighborly affection extends well beyond his south Minneapolis back yard. “I gave to the University of Minnesota because I am a Minnesotan,” he says. Perhaps not incidentally, his sister, Beatrice, is an affiliate faculty member in the School of Music.
Despite his grim preoccupation and his frail health, Ohanessian is a tireless and cheerful conversationalist with a lively wit and radiant smile. “Gift for gab" seriously understates the stamina of a man who, at the end of a two-hour interview, eagerly suggests an encore.