Funeral services are scheduled Saturday, July 3, in Fresno for Dr. Arra S. Avakian, a retired professor of Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno who also taught mathematics, wrote prolifically and served his church for decades. Dr. Avakian, who was born in 1912 in Boston, died in Fresno on Wednesday, June 30.
His doctorate in mathematics and science was awarded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Avakian had a career in scientific research and engineering, especially aerospace technology, before turning his attention to Armenian studies at Fresno State in 1970.
He joined Dr. Louise Nalbandian, a history professor who taught Armenian history beginning in 1967. She added classes about Armenia and its heritage into the Fresno State curriculum and recruited Dr. Avakian to teach Armenian culture as part of a fledgling Ethnic Studies program.
Dr. Nalbandian died in an auto accident in 1975. Dr. Avakian retired in 1976.
Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, hired in 1977 to re-establish the Armenian Studies, praised Dr. Avakian’s work in the field. Today, the Fresno State program is recognized as one of the top programs in the country, offering courses on Armenian history, Armenian language and literature, art and architecture, film, William Saroyan, the Genocide and contemporary issues. Courses in Armenian history are also offered under the Department of History.
Kouymjian met Dr. Avakian decades ago when he was the best man at the wedding of his niece. The two men were active in the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research, which Dr. Avakian co-founded.
“His interest in things Armenian was already very apparent when at age 22 or 23 he made it to Paris and to the bedside of the revered Genocide survivor, great musicologist, conductor and composer Komitas Vardapet,” said Kouymjian from his Paris home after learning of his colleague’s passing.
Komitas was near death and suffering from depression for which he was being treated in a mental institution, Kouymjian said, when Dr. Avakian sought him out for a visit in 1935.
“Arra’s interest in the church as a lifelong deacon, serving on the altar almost every Sunday and as choir director
“Over the years, we saw each other often. He kept a close interest in the development of the Armenian Studies Program,” Kouymjian said, “and his loyalty was underlined when he donated his entire professional Armenian Studies library to the Henry Madden Library in 2003.”
The collection – assembled over more than 60 years – included about 3,000 books and pamphlets, focusing on his three favorite topics: church architecture, the Armenian language and Armenian music. Among the items were a 19th century missal from Venice, an Armenian-Latin dictionary printed in Constantinople and a copy of the first English edition of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”
Avakian said his decision to donate to Fresno State “seemed natural. I used to be on the faculty and this is a way for a lasting association with the university.”
Dr. Avakian was deeply involved in Armenian community life and the study of Armenian culture. He wrote “Armenian Journey Through History,” “Armenians in America” and “Manual for Choirmasters,” translated 10 books from Armenian into English and was the author of “The Eaglet,” a historical novel set in fifth century Armenia.
His wife, Georgia, died in 2004 after they had been married 65 years. Dr. Avakian is survived by five children, his sister, his brother, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Said Kouymjian, “His memory will remain affectionate among many in the community for his scholarly work and also his leadership in the Armenian Church and many Armenian-oriented organizations.”
Knights of Vartan Services for Dr. Avakian begin at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 3, and church services at 2:30. St. Paul Armenian Church is at 5767 N. First St.