By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
I would like to dedicate this article to the sad occasion of the passing last month of my dear high school teacher, Olivia Balian, who changed my life with a noble gesture.
The year was 1968. I was a student at the Sophia Hagopian Armenian High School in Beirut, Lebanon.
When the time came to register as a 10th grade student, I went to the Principal’s office and told the staff that my parents could not pay the tuition. Although I was the top student in my class, I was sent home due to lack of money! This was a heart-breaking experience for a young man, as I loved being in school and desperately wanted to continue my education.
I went home and spent my day at the tire repair shop of my father who could barely earn enough to pay the tuition of my two other siblings. A very old man and respected member of the Ramgavar Party saw me in the shop and wondered why I was not in school. I told him I was sent home due to lack of funding. He offered to help by calling the Principal of the AGBU Hovaguimian-Manougian High School and asking him to register me tuition free. Even though the school was far away from my home, I could not pass the opportunity to continue my education. I took a city bus to downtown Beirut and went to the Principal’s office. Being embarrassed to tell him that I was supposed to get free tuition, I told the Principal that arrangements were made for me to study at a discounted tuition. I was stunned when the Principal screamed at me that there was no such thing as a discounted tuition. I immediately turned around and rushed back to my father’s tire shop!
On the third day, one of my classmates from Sophia Hagopian High School came to my father’s shop to inform me that the Principal had sent him to tell me that I should come back to school and register. When I arrived at my school, I told the registrar that I could not pay the tuition. She informed me that my tuition was fully paid and to go and join my classmates. I asked the registrar to tell me who paid for my tuition so I can thank that wonderful individual. I was told that the benefactor wanted to remain anonymous!
So I went to my classroom, but kept wondering who was the person or organization that gave me the golden opportunity to continue my education. I went back to the Principal’s office after classes and begged the registrar to disclose the name of the benefactor. Upon my insistence, she reluctantly informed me that the benefactor was none other than my English teacher, Olivia Balian, on condition that I do not go and thank her and risk the registrar getting fired for breaking her confidentiality. I promised that I would not talk to her. The registrar also told me that when the school year started and she noticed that my classroom desk was unoccupied, she inquired why I was not in school. She was told that my parents could not pay the tuition. She then told the Principal to deduct my tuition from her salary!
The whole year I sat in Ms. Balian’s class, thinking about her magnanimous gesture, but unable to express my appreciation to her. A year later, I came to the United States and eventually received two Master’s degrees, one from Columbia University in New York in International Affairs and the second an MBA from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.
But I never forgot the kindness and generosity of Ms. Balian who paid for my tuition from her meager salary. Almost 40 years later, I returned to Beirut for the first time, to donate a total of $4.5 million from Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation to all 28 Armenian schools in the country. Among the schools I visited was my former High School. While handing the Principal the donation of several hundred thousand dollars, I advised him never to keep any student away from the school for lack of money, because one never knows what that student will become in the future if he had continued his education. He could be a brilliant doctor, a good diplomat, the principal of a school, a church leader or someone who ends up working for a billionaire benefactor who would make a major donation to the school!
While in Lebanon, I very much wanted to see Ms. Balian and thank her for her generosity so many years later. She had retired from teaching long ago and lived in an apartment by herself outside Beirut. I arranged for my former classmates and the Archbishop of Lebanon to take me to her place. She was so thrilled to see me as I was. We had a very warm visit. Sitting next to her, I was finally able to thank her, but she did not want to hear about it and humbly changed the subject. I offered to assist her anyway possible, including financial help or special recognition by the community for her many decades of service to the education of young Armenians. She declined all offers.
I left her apartment with much contentment because I was able to finally acknowledge her generosity after all these years!
While this column is about Ms. Olivia Balian, it is also a testimony that one person can make a great difference in the lives of others. Without her timely assistance, giving me the unique opportunity to study English, I probably would have never come to the United States and would not have ended up as the publisher of an English-language newspaper, The California Courier. I probably would have spent the rest of my life repairing tires at my father’s shop in Beirut!