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Column: My father had 91 years of joy, love and fighting for justice. It wasn’t enough

Richard Abcarian at 38 with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.
In May 1967, San Fernando Valley State College Professor Richard Abcarian, 38, spoke on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento to protest then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s proposed education budget cuts. Reagan surprised the protesters by coming out to the steps to speak.
(Courtesy of the Abcarian family)

On May 3, 1977, the Los Angeles Times published a story out of Washington.

“Raising a Child,” said the headline, “Costs a Typical Family $64,000.”

My father copied this story and mailed it to his four children.

“To my dear Children and Debtors,” he wrote, “Please submit forthwith a tentative schedule of repayment for this debt. Since it is, as you can see, a large one, it will be to your advantage to begin repayment as quickly as possible. Love, R. Abcarian, your Father and Creditor.”

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Two days later, an envelope landed in his mailbox.

Inside was a check, signed by my younger sister, Sara, for $64,000. She was 18 and had inherited his wicked sense of humor.

I found that old news clip, along with Sara’s uncashed check, in one of my father’s drawers last week, as I began the bittersweet task of sorting through his things.

My father, Richard Abcarian, known to all his friends as Dick, died of a stroke on Sept. 21 at age 91. (For the record, it was not easy being a “Dick” these past few decades. “I just want to be the old Dick I used to be,” he recently told a home health nurse as he bemoaned the cognitive changes that robbed him of the ability to fully enjoy his cherished L.A. Times. She stifled a laugh.)

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The son of working-class Armenian immigrants, my father grew up in Fresno. His father was a barber and failed grape farmer; his mother packed dried figs. Their three sons all earned advanced degrees at public universities and generally lived the American dream, or as my father would sometimes say, quoting “Zorba the Greek,” “wife, children, house, everything — the full catastrophe.”

My father taught American literature at Cal State Northridge, arriving from Berkeley in 1959, when it was still called San Fernando Valley State College.

He was handsome, charismatic and the very embodiment of a conservative Republican’s nightmare radical left-wing college professor. He once told me he’d rather live in Castro’s Cuba than under the regime of George W. Bush. (Was he trying to get under my skin? I’m still not sure.)

A political creature who despised academic airs, he was a leader in the effort to win collective bargaining for Cal State professors.

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In May 1967, three months before he carted the entire family off to France for a Fulbright Scholarship teaching year (noted in The Times!), he stood on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento, in a cap and gown, to protest Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan’s proposed education cuts, which he’d described to a Times reporter as “dangerous and irresponsible.”

To his surprise, the new governor came out to placate the angry crowd of educators. A photographer captured the moment, my father at the microphone, the affable Reagan ready to charm an uncharmable crowd. Those cuts, by the way, marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of free higher education in California.

Despite its suburban location, the Northridge campus was among the most politically volatile in California during the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 1969, students, faculty and administrators reached a groundbreaking agreement to recruit more Black and brown students and teachers and to create an Africana studies department.

My father loved his students, and they loved him back. Among his cherished possessions is a framed copy of a handwritten “Professor Profile Evaluations” dated June 1970. Fifty English department professors were rated on a scale of 1 to 5 with comments by students. My dad was the only one to receive the top score.

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He was, as you can imagine, a very cool guy. He played the trumpet in high school, and again, much later, as a member of the Culver City Senior Center’s big band. He loved rock and roll — especially Pink Floyd — and probably went to more concerts than I did. He smoked pot and never tired of recounting how, in the bathroom of a Rolling Stones concert at the Forum in the ’80s, a young man turned to him and said, “Would you like a hit of my joint, sir?”

My father created one of the earliest courses on Black literature, and published an anthology of literary criticism about Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” For a time, he and my late mother were “testers” for the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council, posing as would-be renters to help ferret out housing discrimination.

Robin Abcarian's father Richard Abcarian raising a fist in front of a Black Lives Matter banner.
My father, Richard Abcarian, 91, raising a fist in front of our Venice Beach garage, under a BLM banner.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

He was in a constant state of incandescent rage over the never-ending police killings of Black people, and last summer asked me to read Wright’s 1938 short story, “Big Boy Leaves Home.” It is a gutting tale of four Black teenagers who, on an idyllic day in rural Mississippi, strip off their clothes and swim naked in a creek. A white woman encounters them, screams, and a white man shows up with a rifle.

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His political outrage could be exhausting, especially if you already agreed with him. Many times, I asked him to stop yelling at me, and he’d pause, puzzled, and say, “I’m not yelling at you, I’m yelling at them.”

In 1971, my dad and his best friend and office mate, the late Marvin Klotz, teamed up to create an anthology of literature that could be used in colleges around the country. Like so many great ideas, it came to them during a poker game. Was Scotch involved? Probably.

The result, “Literature: The Human Experience” is one of the most enduring college textbooks of the modern era. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold.

And all these years later, its 13th edition is still in print — “an extremely rare accomplishment for a college textbook,” said John Sullivan, senior program manager for readers and literature at MacMillan, the parent company of the book’s publisher, Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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The royalties paid for at least six college tuitions, house remodelings, trips to Europe and more.

About eight years ago, my father and I both went through divorces, his second, my only. He invited me to rent the apartment above his garage in Venice Beach until I figured out my next step.

I never left, and when my sister Sara’s young granddaughter moved in with me nearly two years ago, we became the oddest trio of roommates.

I did not understand the depth of connection this 10-year-old girl had to her great-grandfather until a few days after he died. At bedtime, she began to weep as she told me how much she missed her Papa Dick.

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“I just don’t know how I can go on living without him,” she said through tears.

I knew exactly how she felt.

@AbcarianLAT


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