Hundreds Gather in Oakland to Honor Lifelong Athletic Visionary and Leader, Richard Demirjian
Posted on June. 21. 2019
OAKLAND, Calif. — On Sunday, June 2, at St. Vartan Armenian Church, hundreds of former and current athletes gathered from near and far to honor Richard Demirjian for his decades of service. With Richard in attendance, the tribute luncheon was a great opportunity for former teammates and friends to reminisce about their fond memories all under the leadership and guidance of Demirjian.
For nearly six decades, Demirjian was the catalyst for participation throughout California by Armenian youth in athletic competition, including track and field, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, softball, tennis and soccer. The gathering provided an opportunity to show Richard how much he personally meant to everyone in the room and beyond.
In 1969, Demirjian, along with Ben Morjig, spearheaded the Western Armenian Athletic Association (WAAA) Games, which was first held in the San Francisco Bay Area and then in Fresno. The games ran for 46 years with thousands of talented Armenian athlete participants. Dermirjian was also instrumental in the St. Vartan Armenian Church athletic team’s participation in various tournaments throughout the Western Diocese.
The luncheon began with a surprise — 85-year-old Ed Baker ran into the church hall as a torch bearer. Olympic-themed music played in the background as Baker ran a lap around all the guest tables replicating the Opening Ceremonies during the WAAA Games. Baker ran for St. Vartan Armenian Church for more than three decades, and in 1979 set the record for the Master’s Mile, which still stands today.
Throughout the afternoon, many former athletes spoke with deep gratitude and appreciation for what Richard meant to them. Steven Donikian served as the event’s master of ceremonies and provided great commentary as a former athlete himself.
The first speaker was Jack Papazian, who, along with his brother George, were instrumental in encouraging Demirjian to start a basketball program and competition back in the 1960’s. Jack paid tribute to Richard and expressed how much of an impact he made on his life.
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Other speakers included Judy Rejebian, who held the world record for the pentathlon at age 13; David Madajian spoke about his year’s running track and reflecting on fond memories spending holidays with the Dermirjians; Van Der Mugrdechian, who traveled from Fresno with lots of photos and memorabilia in tow from past competitions; and Brian Babayans from Los Angeles, who let Richard know how much he impacted the lives of him and his brother, and how Richard was instrumental in getting them both involved in the Armenian community. Ken Thompson, a sharp-shooter on the basketball court, reminisced about his years of playing under Demirjian and lifelong friendships he created through competition.
A special video tribute was played from St. Vartan’s own, Matt Vasgersian, who offered well wishes to Dermirjian. Matt is currently a commentator with ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and the MLB Network and was a neighbor to Demirjian as a child.
Janet Demirjian Schmid, Richard’s daughter, presented a poignant tribute to both her parents and provided heartwarming anecdotes about growing up in a household surrounded by Armenian athletics.
Richard, along with his wife Dottie, took in all the accolades happily and gracefully. The afternoon ended with remarks from Richard Demirjian, who held back tears as he looked into the room and was filled with much pride, joy and gratitude.
Before the program concluded, Father Hovel Ohanyan, Parish Priest at St. Vartan Armenian Church, and Nazar Jindoian, Parish Council Chairman, presented Richard with a certificate announcing the newly established, Richard Demirjian Athletic Fund. All donations will go toward the athletic program at St. Vartan Church to ensure his legacy continues.
The members of the organizing committee included Kim Bardakian, Yeghia Apkarian, Janet Demirjian Schmid, Annette Boyd Kevranian, Steven Donikian and Hagop Hakimian. The St. Vartan Ladies Society prepared lunch for the guests.
Dermijian’s vision to bring Armenian athletes together to compete was successful. However, he accomplished so much more. He connected Armenians from the Bay Area and beyond, cultivating lifelong friendships and memories that will last for generations, as witnessed in the overflowing hall on June 2 in Oakland.
Donations can be made out to St. Vartan Armenian Church with the memo: “Richard Demirjian Athletic Fund,” and can be mailed to St. Vartan Church, 650 Spruce Street, Oakland, CA 94610.
Richard Demirjian was born on a farm outside Byron, Mich. to Sarkis and Kaden Demirjian, along with his two brothers and sister. He served in the U.S. Army and was headquartered in Paris, France. After his time in the Army, he attended Wayne State University in Detroit, graduating in 1951 with a degree in Business Administration.
Upon graduation, he worked at his brother’s shop, learning the precision, hard-chrome plating trade, which he eventually brought to California, where he opened a similar business in Oakland.
He had always known Dottie Vahratian from the Detroit Armenian community, where she was also a stand-out track star at Commerce High School. They married in 1952 and later moved to Oakland in 1960. Richard’s love of sports has always been deeply embedded in him. He was a freestyle swimmer in high school and college and also ran the mile in track.