In the summer of 2004, a stranger hugged him at the Martyrs Monument in Armenia and Garbis Der Yeghiayan wondered, "Who are you? How do you know me?"
"Truly an ambassador of peace to the world" is the way La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff describes Der Yeghiayan, a La Verne resident and past Rotary International District 5300 governor.
The man at the monument thought so, too.
When Der Yeghiayan goes to Armenia, he goes directly to the monument from the airport to pay his respects to the 1.5 million Armenians murdered by the Young Turks in an early 20th century holocaust.
The stranger went to the monument to find Der Yeghiayan.
"He said there's an event this evening honoring you as the founder of the Rotary club in Yerevan, Armenia, and I'm here to speak on that occasion," recalled the still baffled Der Yeghiayan. "Again, I am curious and ask him, `Who are you? I don't know you.'
"He said `I know you. You're a peacemaker. I'm a peacemaker, too, so we have something in common."'
The stranger was Erhan Ciftcioglu, the Rotary district governor in Turkey. The historic meeting became even more so as the Armenian and the Turk then kneeled at the monument and prayed for peace.
"My sister Knar and everyone are shocked to see an Armenian and a Turk together, especially at the Martyrs Monument," Der Yeghiayan said.
"What united us," Der Yeghiayan explained, "was Rotary International, an organization promoting peace. We hugged and said, `we are brothers, you and I. Together, we will accomplish the impossible.' The peace conference idea was born at the Martyrs Monument."
Ciftcioglu returned to Mersin, Turkey, and initiated a peace exchange, starting with 25 Armenian children hosted by local Turkish families. The cultural exchange prompted the children and families to become peace-and-reconciliation advocates themselves.
In March 2005, a peace conference was held in Ankara, Turkey, bringing together Rotarians from Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan for the first time.
Der Yeghiayan and Ciftcioglu served as conference co-chairs. The former gave an emotionally charged speech that left Armenians and Turks hugging and crying.
"It's almost impossible to describe in words because of all the mixed emotions you feel when descendants of the martyrs show any camaraderie with descendants of those who martyred them," Der Yeghiayan confessed.
"As the great-grandson of a martyred archpriest, I had this very special feeling that I was making a difference. This was a very, very rare moment in the history of our two people," he continued.
Armenians, recognized as loyal by the Ottoman Empire, had peacefully lived as good neighbors with Turks for 700 years before the genocide, he noted. Many Turks hid Armenian neighbors and helped them survive the slaughter, he added.
Denying the genocide and re-writing history to say Armenians were the perpetrators rather than victims "doesn't change historical fact," Der Yeghiayan said. "Our cultural and religious monuments are our witnesses, in ruins, but still proof."
Forgiveness, not hatred, heals human hearts, he said.
Blickenstaff cited an example of Der Yeghiayan's "quietly relentless" efforts for friendship and peace.
Shortly before they departed for the 1985 trip to the then USSR-controlled modern Armenia, a Glendale family asked Blickenstaff to facilitate the release of relatives still in Armenia.
"I had no idea what that would involve, but I promised I'd try," the mayor said.
He and Der Yeghiayan met with the Glendale family's relatives in Armenia. Der Yeghiayan constantly appealed to political officials to let the relatives come to America, but leaders left them guessing.
"One day after we came home I got a call from the Glendale family, telling me their relatives were arriving at Los Angeles International," Blickenstaff said.
"We all went to the airport and celebrated."
By Imani Tate, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 08/23/2007 PM PDT
Despite the suffering of his family, man pursues peace
By Imani Tate, Staff Writer
Dr. Garbis Der Yeghiayan of La Verne believes in peace and reconciliation, even when such beliefs are met with resistance and rancor.
"I don't believe our children should inherit hatred or carry the torch of hatred," he said, explaining the need to reconcile the Armenian genocide by the Young Turks in the early 20th century. "We cannot go on with the status quo."
Rotary International recently gave Der Yeghiayan the Service Above Self Award, its highest honor, for his unswerving devotion to global peace.
He conceded peace is not popular with some Armenians and Turks. Turkish textbooks still switch the roles each side played, claiming Armenians killed Turks. The Turkish
government refuses to admit to, or apologize for, the genocide claiming 1.5 million Armenian lives.
Peace is not cheap, asserted the man who lost 41 relatives to genocide. It cannot be achieved sitting silently on the sidelines and waiting for someone else to take up the gauntlet, he said.
Der Yeghiayan is a spiritual man whose lineage is filled with men of faith. His first name, another version of paternal grandfather Garabad's name, means forerunner.
Yeghia Der Yeghiayan, his paternal great-grandfather, was the archpriest of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Kharpert, the ancient Armenian city now in Turkey and re-named Elazig. In 1913, his arms were chopped off from his naked body and he was thrown into the Euphrates River because he refused to deny his faith.
Der Yeghiayan's grandfather survived the genocide because he was working in the U.S. Returning home, he found only one aunt, Varvar, had survived the mass slaughter.
"He then went to the orphanages, searching for an orphan girl from his village to marry. My grandmother was 17 and he was 35," Der Yeghiayan said, "but she married him because they were from the same village and she had no relatives left. They moved to Syria. The first of their eight children was my father."
The couple told their 35 grandchildren stories of sacrifice, faith, family and culture and taught them compassion and tolerance even towards those harboring hatred, he recalled. Der Yeghiayan, 57, grew up in Beirut, but spent summers with his grandparents in Syria.
His great-aunt, who lived to be 108, encouraged him to go to their family's ancient home, now in Turkey, a pilgrimage he finally made in 1987.
He climbed the steep, rocky hill to the fortress above the Euphrates River. His
ancestors were forced to make the same climb before being thrown to their collective doom. He dipped his hands in the river that had run red for three days with his people's blood, performing a ceremonial baptism honoring the martyrs.
In 1985, La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff and his wife, Joan, accompanied Der Yeghiayan to modern Armenia in what was then in the Soviet bloc. They received "warm, welcoming red-carpet treatment because of people's respect for Garbis," Blickenstaff said.
"Garbis is beyond passionate in his quest for a better world," he added. "He can't find enough hours in the day to pursue his vision of people getting along with each other."
His convictions are unbowed by bigotry or even loss of income when benefactors withdrew support from Mashdots College, the Armenian college in Glendale he founded in 1992, said Dr. Daniel Young, a Rotarian and close friend.
Der Yeghiayan's convictions were nurtured by his parents, Hagop and Lydia. Their emphasis on education led Garbis and sister Knar to careers in education, brother Samuel to a federal judgeship and brother Joe to immigration law.
He and Angela, his wife of 34 years, also emphasize education with their sons. Jimmy Paul is a sports medicine therapist and Johnny Samuel is a youth pastor.
Der Yeghiayan was in his first year at the American University of Beirut when his High School of Life principal asked him to return and teach there.
"I said, `come on, I'm only 17,"' Der Yeghiayan remembered saying, laughing because some
of his students were 18 and he felt they wouldn't listen to him. "He said `they know and respect you. You won't have any problems."'
And he didn't.
He taught physics, chemistry and math. When he completed
a bachelor of arts in political science and public administration and bachelor of science in educational administration at age 21, he was appointed principal.
Der Yeghiayan, who speaks nine languages, has doctorates in educational management from the University of La Verne and in human development and social policy from Northwestern University.
He and Angela came to the U.S. in 1976 when he was named dean, at age 26, of the new American Armenian International College in La Verne. He served as AAIC president from 1981 to 1992.
In 1990, he and La Verne Rotarians founded a Rotary
club in Yerevan, Armenia, the first behind the Iron Curtain. Echmiadzin, Armenia, is La Verne's sister city. In 2005, Der Yeghiayan and Erhan Ciftcioglu, Rotary district governor in
Turkey, co-organized the first peace conference for Rotarians from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey.