Scotsman Obituaries: Vartan Gregorian, philanthropist and friend of Scotland

Vartan Gregorian, academic and philanthropist. Born: 8 April 1934 in Tabriz, Iran. Died: 15 April 2021 in New York, United States, aged 87
Vartan Gregorian pictured in 2019Vartan Gregorian pictured in 2019
Vartan Gregorian pictured in 2019

Vartan Gregorian, one of the great and most honoured Americans of his time, and a true friend of Scotland died in New York on 15 April 2021. He held the highest American civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was given over 70 honorary doctorates, throughout the world, and received countless medals and honours.

Time invariably heals our sense of loss but is it not good, in a confused world, that there is a necessary time, for our respect and appreciation of good men and the lesson of their values and life? And, in looking at their lives, do we not hold up a mirror to ourselves and, hopefully, draw lessons.

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His long life had started in Tabriz in North East Persia. Brought up in very modest

circumstances, beautifully told in his moving autobiography, The Road to Home, his abilities were recognised, by others, who supported his entry to the College Armenien in Beirut. His great promise drew help from the Armenian diaspora, to move to Stanford University. If he had dreamed the American dream he now wonderfully fulfilled it, as if it was a fairy tale.

He had an outstanding academic career, eventually becoming the 23rd Provost of Penn University. Despite strong faculty support, conservative attitudes prevailed and did not allow his deserved elevation to President. Others saw his true qualities and he later became President of Brown University, another Ivy League University, which he transformed. He understood that the responsibility of leadership is to lead. Many aspire to high office, and, more interested in the status and title than the job, do nothing. The vacuum is filled by inaction, indecision, and risk aversion. Impotent bureaucracy is the inevitable result. Clear thinking, courageous and decisive, he was a born leader. He was a constant evangelist for education. He never saw education as an end in itself, or to be aimed at “becoming educated'. Long before the vocabulary of life long learning appeared, he exemplified and fulfilled the last words attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, “I lived as a student, and I die as a student”.

I first met him, well over 30 years ago, when we were both invited, and seated together, at a dinner in the wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Not quite knowing why we were there, or why we were seated together, we eyed each other up, like contestants in Blind Date. Small, and cherubic looking, rounded with a goatee beard and curly hair, he exuded energy and warmth. "What are we going to speak about he asked. “Everything except politics, economics, and business” I replied. We never looked back on that first exchange and we were in close contact, until his death. Like many others who knew him, his friendship, his encouragement and his wisdom, were a constant navigational beacon in my own journey.

That night he quickly revealed a profound and well read knowledge of intellectual Scotland, and of our literature, of our great writers on philosophy, and of our history. We had a memorable review of the international impact of the Scottish diaspora and he told me about the Armenian diaspora, of which he was a very proud member and of Armenia, where he was much involved and honoured. At the time of his death we had been planning a visit to Armenia, though he declined my subversive offer to be designated as his bodyguard. He was therefore an ideal person to become President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, in which he was very actively involved until his death. There he brought together nearly 30 charitable bodies which Carnegie had founded or generated. Every two years he presided over their meeting in New York, to share their work and aspirations, and to honour Carnegie.

He strongly shared the spirit of Carnegie's intentions and legacy and was able to give it a full expression, in a different time. There was common ground between the hinterland of adversity and the influence of reading, from which Carnegie had emerged, and his own life. The motto on Carnegie's bookplate, Let there be Light, could well have been his own.

On his last visit to Scotland 18 months ago, he came for the installation of the wonderful Tiffany window, which Andrew Carnegie had given to Dunfermline, and which 100 years later, he ensured was at last on display. Afterwards he came directly to a Festival lunch which my wife and I give each year, for many talented friends. He spent much time speaking to the waiters, (one of his early careers), always a highlight of many breakfasts with him in New York, where he seemed a family member to all. When I asked him if he was enjoying himself, he said “Yes, it is great”, but, always my educator, he added 'I think I need to take you to a wedding in Armenia”.

One of his greatest achievements was in the restoration and rehabilitation of the New York Public Library. His formidable fundraising ability and his influential connections enabled him, and his great ally Mrs Brooke Astor, to suggest offers for support, and these were rarely declined. He also brought that experience to bear on the reconstruction of the Great Library in Alexandria and to the National Library in Yerevan, Armenia.

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His advice was sought, and taken, by many of the great US philanthropists of his time. He was a trustee or adviser to many of the largest foundations. An example of his foresight and influence, was his encouragement to the press magnate and philanthropist, Walter Annenberg, a former US Ambassador to the UK, to kick start funding for urban public schools, a neglected and urgent challenge. They insisted that the US Government matched Annenberg's contribution, dollar for dollar. I believe that it was only when the principle of matching funding had been agreed, that Annenberg disclosed he had decided to give many hundreds of million dollars.

He had a quick wit, which matched his youthful sense of humour. He could be at his most robust, when he seemed to be self-deprecating, or missing the point. He was a wonderful debunker of pomposity. When he was to receive his honorary degree at Edinburgh none of his family could attend. He asked me to accompany him at the related events. At the preceding dinner an officious academic, in the Edinburgh spirit of 'You'll have had your tea’ asked me what I ‘was doing there'. He did not recognise Vartan who turned and replied “He is my family and then, after a long pause added 'He is my brother'. When I asked Vartan, later, whether my promotion was permanent, he replied “Yes, until they ask for your Armenian birth certificate'.

He had a real affection for Scotland, and was active in securing major support for Aberdeen and St Andrews Universities. He understood and encouraged the great library on the Scottish Enlightenment, created by Dr William Zachs. He took a close interest in Scotland International, the private forum which meets ever year at Gleneagles. He gave a wonderful address there on "The Mosaic of Islam'. That was remarkable as late the previous evening, he had missed the master switch in his bedroom, and tripped hitting his head on a table. Nine stitches were required, overnight at Perth Infirmary, but next day, the voice coming from behind his heavily bandaged head, did not miss a beat!

He was a particular friend of the Burrell. He understood the importance of holding together, as intended, the works of great individual collectors, to be found there, and also at the Frick, the Barnes Collection, The Wallace, and others. We often talked about the need to avoid thematic zeal by art historians, who wanted to rationally reorder the minds of great collectors, and purge them of perceived eccentricity, which was their unique strength.

When I became chairman of the Burrell Renaissance he opened many doors for me, always at the top, usually the next day. He would invariably try to join me and support my cause. The subsequent strong connections reinforced the ambition to liberate the international potential of the Burrell, and to seek approval, by a private Act of Parliament, as we did successfully, to be able to lend abroad. Reciprocal trust and engagement would in turn lead to shared world- class comparative exhibitions at the Burrell. Glasgow too, is in his debt.

He had lived a fulfilling and long life. We should be truly grateful for that, when his time had come. He had been formed by his unique width of experience and shaped on the anvil of adversity. A man of profound intellect and learning his greatest strength was that he could take confident decisions and ensure action. But, always, he had the soul of a poet.

His true legacy is his influence on others, which will long outlast his great achievements.


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