Vartan Gregorian, who died last Thursday in New York at age eighty-seven, led an extraordinary life that deserves to be remembered and celebrated for its own sake, but also to be appreciated for what it says about his adopted country, the United States.
He was born in the Armenian community of Tabriz, a city in northern Iran, and raised by one of his grandmothers. An excellent student, he made his way to a lycée in Beirut with the help of the French consul general in Tabriz. Despite beginning with no knowledge of French, he graduated at the top of his class and won admission to Stanford University. He arrived there with no money, knowing no one, and with what he described in his lovely 2003 memoir, The Road to Home, as a command of English that was “both poor and inadequate.”
Yet he earned a B.A. in two years and a Ph.D. six years later. He became an accomplished scholar, publishing, in 1969, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, a standard work on that troubled and troublesome country. He became, as well, a popular and respected teacher at San Francisco State and the University of Texas at Austin. He moved from a faculty position to academic administration, becoming provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Then, after having been passed over—unjustly, by all accounts—for the presidency of that institution, in 1981 he accepted the presidency of the New York Public Library system.
That system was dying: chronically underfunded, in debt, with its splendid main building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street in disrepair, many of its eighty-three branches throughout the city almost unusable and unused, and its staff demoralized. Gregorian loved books and relished a challenge, and in his eight years as president he restored the system not only to good health but also to a position of robust centrality in the life of New York City. Anyone who makes use of the Library’s great collections, or attends its exhibits or lectures, or even admires the main building while walking down Fifth Avenue, is in his debt.
From the Library he went on to become president of Brown University and ultimately of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of the world’s leading philanthropic foundations, where I came to know him. His career, then, had a classically American trajectory: coming from a distant, obscure place, he rose, through his own abilities, to the heights of national life—receiving, in 2004, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
The magazine Reader’s Digest used to have a feature with the grammatically dubious title, “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met.” Vartan Gregorian belonged in that category. In person he was warm, gregarious, witty, generous, and shrewd. He possessed that difficult-to-define but instantly recognizable quality known as charm, but even more striking was his profound graciousness. I was pleased to be able to dedicate a 2005 book of my own to him. His many friends will miss him, but even beyond that wide circle his life is significant in ways that are worth noting.
At a time when immigration to the United States has become as contentious as it ever has been, his accomplishments show how much immigrants have enriched the life of the nation.
In an era in which universities have become politicized, polarized, and increasingly nasty places that seem less and less devoted to their main missions of education and the encouragement of scholarship, his experience exemplifies what the academy at its best welcomes and nourishes: intellectual productivity, committed teaching, and personal integrity.
At a time when digital technology seems to be pushing the printed word to the margins of our culture, his life reminds us that books have been, and will continue to be, the repositories of much that is valuable in human civilization.
And at a moment in which, from some of the most prominent national platforms, voices denounce the United States as an evil, racist creation from its inception to the present, the life of Vartan Gregorian demonstrates what, to the contrary, it has actually been—imperfectly but essentially—from the beginning: a country where talent, drive, and decency can find expression and flourish. He led a great life, and that life was possible only in America.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).
Disclosure: The Carnegie Corporation of New York is a financial supporter of American Purpose. Photo: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31603916
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