Charting Family History through the AYF Olympics

Posted on July. 21. 2022

BY Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

The reminders have been arriving in abundance the last few weeks. The AYF Olympics are less than two months away. In the Armenian community in America, the term Olympics has a special meaning. I am not referring to that multibillion dollar television event every four years on NBC. This one is much closer to home. It has a rotating host and has been a reference point for American Armenians for generations. The AYF Olympics has been a lens for decades through which one can navigate their personal history. As a culture that values social relationships, we have a variety of subgroups based on organizational affiliations or interests. The AYF family consists of parents, children and grandparents who have participated in what the AYF has to offer on a local and national level. The AGBU has the Camp Nubar family with its long service history and alumni. The AYF Olympics is particularly unique in that it has prospered over the test of time (since 1934) and has attracted multiple generations to the same venue and encouraged lifelong friendships so vital to the sustaining of the diaspora. K. Merton Bozoian, Popken Hachigian, Arthur Giragosian and others from the founding community established a winning recipe. It has evolved with enhancements, but the core remains the same. It has become so ingrained in our culture such that it is difficult to say “Labor Day weekend” without thinking about the upcoming Olympics venue.
For many of us, a part or all of our family history is tied to certain Labor Days. Looking at each Olympics reminds us of certain milestones in our lives that ushered us to the present. In order to illustrate this point, I will offer reference details in my own personal history. I would suggest you do the same with your families and share this rich information with your children. Our first family milestone with the AYF Olympics was in Providence in 1941. It was just a few months before Pearl Harbor when everyone’s lives would change. My father and his older brother Murad were attending the weekend festivities. Staying at a hotel was a foreign concept in those days. Families opened their homes. It was a different time from a social and financial perspective. When they asked my grandfather for permission to go, he informed them of a “gamavor friend” who lived in Providence. They were in the Armenian Legion together from 1918 to 1920; for my grandfather, this was always his starting point. This man was Sarkis Varadian—the patriarch of the Varadian clan. My dad and uncle were two of many occupying space on the floors sleeping in the Varadian home. In the evenings, the elder Varadian walked into this sea of youth and asked, “Who are the Piligian boys?” My uncle and dad emerged from the wall of blankets to a warm hug from their host. That began a lifelong friendship between the four Varadian brothers, their sister and the four Piligian brothers.
I always continue with 1942. The Olympics were in Lawrence, Massachusetts that year, and it is where my father and mother met. We have a picture of my mom (fresh out of high school) in bobby socks with my then 20-year-old dad standing in a field near the track stadium. The innocence of the youth had been lost just a few months earlier with the start of WWII. My father was a tool and die maker and was given a deferment based on the need of his skills. He was not happy about that and eventually entered the Air Corps and fought in the Pacific Theater. His AYF romance continued until their engagement as Mom waited for his return. By the grace of God, Dad returned in late 1945, and they were married in June of 1946. A few months later, the Olympics were held in my mom’s hometown of New Britain, CT. Naturally, they attended with Dad participating in the running events. With so many of the “boys” returning and getting married, the Olympics during those few post-war years were filled with married men and women members. Some even had children while participating in the weekend. Two factors influenced that—couples married much earlier in that generation and the end of the war accelerated that trend. Literally newlyweds, my parents weren’t about to miss a “hometown” Olympics.
In 1952, the Olympics were held in Springfield (Indian Orchard) where my parents lived and had begun to raise a family. That would be the first and only time this small community would host the Olympics, and they embraced it with such pride. It was another home game as my father was born and raised in this community. This was a generation before the formation of an Olympic Governing Body; templates for organizing had yet to be established. My father aged out that year as he turned 30 years old. He and my mother would now enter a new phase of their AYF relationship as alumni. In the early 1950s, the alumni were just emerging as a large group since the organization was only 19 years old. During the mid-50s to the late-60s, our parents would attend the Olympics, pushing strollers at the track and field events on Sunday and later dancing the night away at the Olympic Ball. There was no organized alumni dance as there is today. That was added to the weekend as the alumni became larger and the generational distinctions emerged in the 70s. Before we were old enough to attend on our own, I recall driving to the games and staying with family. I distinctly remember the 1965 games in Hartford with the track and field events at Willow Brook Park in New Britain. We used to go there for recreation with my grandparents. We spent the full day at the field watching and being introduced to people by our parents. Gradually, my older sister and I would slip away to hang out with our friends from Springfield. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the generational transfer had begun. It was the year I joined the AYF. After the games, we went to my grandparents’ house where my parents changed for the dance. We were thrilled to be with Grandma and Grandpa. The Olympics in the modern era have truly become a unique three generation weekend with everyone attending.
The 1969 games were a personal watershed as it was the first Olympics that I stayed in the hotel for most of the weekend. It represented a transition from “family day visitor” where we would attend the events with our parents to a full-time participant. Times had changed from what I remembered as a young boy with my parents. The hotel was now a major anchor for the weekend. The era of “hanging out” in the lobby had fully blossomed, and with the hotel facilities came the demographic expansion of the Olympics. The 1970 games were the first venture into the international waters as the Montreal chapter hosted the games. In this beautiful French speaking city, we were teenagers experiencing a rich Armenian life. It was also my first foray into political activism as a number of AYF members removed the Turkish flag from a major hotel. I still can hear the chanting of “Levon Shant” from our Montreal ungerner. It gave the weekend new meaning. I also met my future best man that weekend.
The 1971 games in Boston were my first as a member of the Central Executive (CE). It represented a new level of responsibility for the weekend. The host “Siamonto” chapter represented the city admirably at the Statler Hilton (now the Park Plaza). A great number of friendships were born that year that are now in their sixth decade. The 1972 Olympics was a bold move with games hosted on the west coast by the Los Angeles community. Most of us had never been beyond the Mississippi (Granite City). The downtown Biltmore was the main hotel. During that weekend, the organizing committee held a banquet at the hotel on Saturday before the dance. I was honored to represent the CE to say a few words on behalf of the AYF. Seated next to me at this endless long head table was Jerry Tarkanian—the college basketball coach. We were both pretty far from the podium and struck up a conversion. As it turned out, Tarkanian needed a little help with his remarks as he was not particularly versed with his audience. We worked on his comments during the dinner, and he made his school and all Armenians proud.
The 1973 weekend returned to Canada with the Toronto chapter hosting in their beautiful city. The 1974 games were New England-based with the venerable Worcester chapter—the chapter of my future wife. Ironically, the 2022 games (postponed twice) will be the first time in Worcester since the 70s. By 1975, my tenure on CE had ended, thus creating another transition. I look back on the host communities from 1970-75 and recall the incredible work completed by two Canadian chapters, southern California, the historic Worcester community and Detroit, a bastion of the midwest. The games grew in size and professionalism with the emergence of the Olympic Governing Board in the mid-70s.

Beatrice and Carnig Piligian, 1942 (Photo provided by Stepan Piligian)

In 1979, the games were hosted in New York, which is always special. It was particularly memorable because it was the first Olympics I attended with my future wife. By the early 1980s, married and aged out of the AYF, many of us entered a new and proud status—alumni. What is now considered an anchor of this prolific weekend, the Alumni night, began as a modest gathering of older alumni and most recent “graduates” many years ago. Friday night was a logical time; informal gatherings grew into a reception and a dance format that has been a mainstay for the Olympics. The Olympics still hold great personal meaning as it has become a time to gather with the friendships created in the AYF in the last 50 years. As we become what our parents were a generation ago, the brilliance of this weekend is more prominent. Each of us has the ability to chart important milestones through the Olympics—high school, college, relationships, friendships and families. What I have learned from my personal journey has been the remarkable resilience of the Olympics recipe. The key has been the ability to attract several demographics within the Olympics umbrella. Take a moment to appreciate this gift and think about your journey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *