Armen Sarafian: An Educator Who Always Put Accent on the Positive

Times Staff Writer

The day after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, some students gathered in front of the Pasadena City College cafeteria and threatened to storm it.

That was the tenor of the times when Armen Sarafian, a distinguished San Gabriel Valley educator who died last week after a heart attack, was president of PCC. In 1976, he had told an interviewer from The Times, “They were at a mob tension level.”

Sarafian, who always maintained a deeply personal touch with students throughout his 42-year career, fronted the would-be demonstrators.

“One told me they were so full of grief that they had to relieve it by helping themselves to the food,” he said. “Another yelled and I can still hear it, ‘I’m willing to die or go to jail but I have to do this.’ That showed me how symbolic this was.”


Helped Students

But Sarafian was unrelenting. Taking food without paying for it? That would be a misuse of public funds, he told the students. But he understood their anguish, he quickly added.

“I feel so terribly full of grief, let’s go in together and share the grief, and I’ll pay for it,” he told them.

The students filed into the cafeteria, took food and drinks and, after a cashier toted up the bill, Sarafian dished out about $200.


The incident is often cited as an example of the his uncanny ability of Sarafian, a former president of the University of La Verne and a former member of the State Board of Education, to turn problematic situations into positive ones. “Conflict resolution,” Garbis Der Yeghiayan, president of the American Armenian International College in La Verne, calls it.

“When there were problems, he felt them before they even arose,” said Der Yeghiayan.

Although the King assassination touched off bloody disturbances all across the country, the PCC incident became the impetus for the creation of a fund to assist economically deprived minority students. The first money to go into the Martin Luther King scholarship fund came from black students who subsequently apologized to Sarafian and insisted on reimbursing him for their lunches.

Teacher, administrator, college president, member of the State Board of Education, education innovator, Armen Sarafian died on March 11 at 69, after suffering a massive cardiac arrest while attending the Big West Conference basketball tournament at the Long Beach Arena.

Sarafian, a longtime Pasadena resident, was there to root for his friend, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Coach Jerry Tarkanian, whose team beat New Mexico State for the conference championship.

Tarkanian, who coached at PCC between 1966 and 1968, was one of many who said they had felt Sarafian’s personal magnetism. “He was like a second father,” said a stunned Tarkanian after Sarafian’s death. “He talked to me before the game. And he said he’d see me afterward. He knew my mother and father. We’ve been close for 50 years.”

Former La Verne President

Besides his 11-year tenure as PCC president, Sarafian put in nine years as president of the University of La Verne, where he founded the American Armenian International College in 1976. At both PCC and La Verne, he was credited with turning ailing institutions into healthy educational centers.


Born in Van Nuys of Armenian immigrant parents, Sarafian earned his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude at La Verne College, where his father, Turkish-born Kevork Sarafian, was the head of the foreign languages department.

Sarafian earned his master’s at Claremont Graduate School and his Ph.D. at USC.

By the end of his presidency at PCC, where Sarafian had begun teaching in 1947, the school’s enrollment had doubled. While there, Sarafian was the driving force for the Southern California Consortium for Community College Television, an alliance of 18 colleges that first brought instructional television to the region.

“What other people saw as dreaming blue skies, he put into action,” said David Ledbetter, PCC’s assistant superintendent for instructional services.

La Verne evolved, under Sarafian’s guidance, from a small liberal arts college near financial collapse to a university that had achieved both financial solvency and academic respect. It had been the dream of Sarafian’s father to build an Armenian college in La Verne, said Der Yeghiayan. “Armen turned it into a reality,” he said. “That made a big difference in his decision to come to La Verne and accept the presidency.”

In recent years, despite his complaint in 1984 that he was “tired of presidenting,” Sarafian had served as interim president of Colorado Mountain College and as interim chancellor of Peralta Community College District in Oakland.

He also became deeply involved in fund raising for Armenian studies. A trip to Armenia in 1984 was a revelation to him, said Der Yeghiayan. “He had not spoken Armenian in 60 years, but he was carrying on conversations in Armenian,” said Der Yeghiayan. “He was so proud to be visiting the motherland for the first time.”

Sarafian’s style as an educator was unobtrusive. “He was one of those people who did things in a silent, efficient way,” said U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, a fellow member of the Pasadena Armenian-American community. “You never read in the newspaper that Armen Sarafian had done such-and-such. It was always Pasadena City College. He did things not by the use of his name but by the use of the institution.”


But the college president never got so engrossed in institutional details that he forgot about people, friends and colleagues say.

“He wasn’t a William Jennings Bryan orator,” said Bill Goldmann, PCC’s dean of education services. “But he communicated his interest and concern.”

Goldmann was a social science teacher at Pasadena City College (then Pasadena Junior College) when he became the object of Sarafian’s unsolicited generosity.

“He arranged a scholarship for me to study economics at the Claremont Graduate School,” he said. “Knowing about a person’s needs or desires and then doing something about them--they’re really light years apart.”

Bolivian-born Jaime Escalante, the inspirational teacher math at Garfield High School who became the subject of the movie “Stand and Deliver,” recalled Sarafian’s encouragement when, as a PCC student, he was struggling with English.

“There was a class called ‘American Institutions,’ which was a required course,” Escalante said. “The teacher said I didn’t have enough English to perform, and he suggested that I drop the class.”

Sarafian, hearing of Escalante’s difficulties, called him into his office. “He told me not to give up so easily,” Escalante said. “They were beautiful words of encouragement.”

Despite having enough honorary degrees to fill a book and having been appointed to state-level panels, there were some honors Sarafian resisted. When it was suggested in 1976 that PCC name its new paramedic sciences building after him, he strongly opposed the idea.

“It is far better to name buildings for what they contain and offer, rather than to worry about names,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to saddle people with an unpronounceable name and one they can’t spell.”