A 95-Year-Old World War II Veteran Who Defies Age

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Leo Sarkisian playing the kanoun (Photo: Tom Vartabedian)

TEWKSBURY, Mass.—It’s Veterans Day week here at Bayberry Emerald Court and there’s something special going on with one of its cherished residents.

A 95-year-old is busy at work setting up an eye-popping art exhibit that characterizes his World War II Army career, then prepares himself to entertain the guests on the kanoun, an intricate Armenian stringed instrument.

He follows this with a capsule account of his military days and his venerable career on the “Voice of America” with the legendary Edward R. Morrow.

Add to the fact he’ll conduct an interview by computer if you take the time to e-mail him the questions. He’ll get around to it after driving himself and his 66-year bride Mary to their various appointments around town.

Amazing! There’s no other way to describe Leo Sarkisian, who gives geriatrics a bad name. A more humble word might be effervescent. His glass still has plenty of fizz.

“Never a dull moment,” he’s quick to respond. “Life is even better when it puts you to work and gives you energy. I don’t have time to act my age—and never did.”

The artwork he has displayed is impeccable. Mounts of characters he sketched with colored chalk during his military days in Africa. Feeling the urge, Leo stumbled upon some business cards on a dirt floor while storming through a fallout shelter.

Leo Sarkisian by his artwork (Photo: Tom Vartabedian)

He picked up the lot and began sketching on the back. From diminutive works came more enlarged sketches and a stint as a commercial artist and illustrator following World War II. He calls his exhibit “Faces of Africa” and they are well worth the take. Four different museums around the world carry his work.

On this Veterans’ Day, Leo encountered another soldier who fought in the same bloody battle of Anzio. They embraced like long-lost brothers and recounted their hallowed moments in the war. It took this art show to bring the two together through sheer fate.

Among the gathering of 60 folks at this assisted living center were several veterans, some Armenians, fellow residents, administrators, and other friends.

“It’s no small achievement to what this man has accomplished wherever he has gone,” lauded Rev. Fr. Stephan Baljian, pastor, St. Gregory Church of North Andover. “He’s created an atmosphere of camaraderie and artistry. A household name, really. We thank him for his service to humanity.”

This day belonged to Leo serving as a most gracious host at an exhibit that defined a brilliant and eclectic career. Ask him to describe it and he’ll point to a panel with Edward R. Morrow and the “Voice of America.”

Leo Sarkisian at the microphone (Photo: Tom Vartabedian)

It’s all you really need to know: 68 years as a Foreign Service officer, and the rest of it as an Armenian poster child for his generation, a talented artist and musician, a world traveler, and a guy who never stops dancing with his ageless bride.

Don’t call him a pioneer or a Renaissance Man unless you want a grimace. A better description would be a traveling ambassador of goodwill.

“I’m just a little Armenian farm boy from Massachusetts,” he tells you. “I’m very proud of my heritage. It makes me feel happy to see my work and my history being relived.”

When Sarkisian signed off on “Music Time in Africa,” it was the oldest English-language music program in that country, ending a career that spanned more than half a century and took him to every country on the African continent. He was 91 when he called it quits as an “ethnomusicologist.”

He used his travels to hunt down and record music of every stripe and genre, including some 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes that are now part of his Leo Sarkisian Library of African Music.

What people don’t know is that he spent decades traveling as a “Voice of America” goodwill ambassador, visiting countries that most Americans knew nothing about, learning about their music, and sharing it with his radio audience.

Together, the Sarkisians have been to 85 countries. Both Mary & Leo served in World War II, Leo in intelligence earning a Bronze Star and Mary as a communications decoding specialist with the Navy. She’s two years his junior.

They met at an Armenian dance in Haverhill shortly after the war and never looked back. Forget old age. They’ve been swaying to the music ever since, inside the assisted living center they inhabit.

“Our whole life has been one big dance,” Leo reflects.

A lifetime filled with national service has been turned into a ritual of art, travel, pride for their ethnic heritage. Both personify the very goodness of Armenian Americans from Merrimack Valley and Lawrence, from where they originated.

After graduating from Methuen High, Leo received a three-year scholarship from the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, one of the finest art institutions of its time. He received a degree in fine arts, commercial and illustration art with honors just as World War II erupted.

During his childhood, he was surrounded by Middle Eastern music, and played the lute, clarinet, and flutes with Armenian musicians. A thirst for language skills only enhanced his character.

When Leo was hired by broadcasting legend Edward R. Morrow in 1961 to work for “Voice of America,” it was the beginning of a long and illustrious relationship between the two for the official external broadcaster for the United States government. The stint lasted 47 years.

Leo’s connections with the job led to meetings with presidents and kings of countries, listening to their stories and sharing many of his own. Often, he would let his music do the talking.

Leo Sarkisian with his beloved wife Mary of 66 years (Photo: Tom Vartabedian)

Distance never kept the two apart whenever Leo sauntered off to another land. Mary often joined her husband on these ventures, the first being to Afghanistan where she found the people friendly.

One prized possession they own is the kanoun and Leo looks for every opportunity to perform, much as he did this day.

He took to the harp-like instrument, adorned with a tricolor flag, and gushed out Armenian folk tunes for his audience after giving a brief history of the Armenian troubadours. Sitting mesmerized was oud virtuoso Leo Derderian and wife Mary, who came to visit.

“He could fit into any band ensemble right now,” said Derderian. “We should all be so blessed.”

Sarkisian takes it all in stride. He looks upon it as just “another day in paradise.”

“I was once told that my life is like an African proverb,” he says. “When a door opens, you go inside. Our adventures have been the result of seizing opportunities.”


Source: Armenian Weekly
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