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Remembering Dr. Edgar Housepian

By Florence Avakian

Dr. Edgar Housepian was legendary for his pioneering medical, humanitarian and compassionate work. He exemplified the best in humanity, and he performed the tasks before him in his typically quiet, gentle and humble manner. Dr. Housepian passed away on November 14, 2014, at the age of 86.

On February 14, more than 200 friends, colleagues and admirers came to St. Vartan Cathedral to pay their respects to his memory and vision, in a special tribute organized by the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR). Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese and President of FAR, gave an inspiring eulogy, in which he related the enormous contributions of Dr. Housepian to the Armenian Church, the Republic of Armenia, and the American community.

Dr. Housepian, the Primate stated, was heir to a remarkable family tradition through his parents, Dr. Moses and Makrouhi Housepian, who were “pioneers in humane outreach to our homeland in an earlier era. Their example inspired their son to excel in his profession, and to share his gifts with those less fortunate than himself.” And like his parents, he immediately volunteered his expertise when his countrymen faced the enormous tragedy of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia.

With intrepid determination, Dr. Housepian joined the late Archbishop Torkom Manoogian and the late Kevork Hovnanian in creating the Fund for Armenian Relief following a “mission of mercy to our homeland just days after the tragedy,” related the Primate.

“Even when the immediate crisis subsided, he was the ‘guiding light’ in the effort to restructure the health care system in Armenia. Due to his legendary foresight, a new generation of Armenian physicians would enjoy opportunities for training and education undreamt of previously,” Archbishop Barsamian said. “His efforts made lasting improvements in the way people are cared for in Armenia. And here in America, he saved the lives of many who had never met him. He is an example of the Armenian heritage at its best.”

For his extraordinary service, Dr. Housepian was honored in 1992 as the Eastern Diocese’s “Armenian Church Member of the Year” award, and in 2010 the Fund for Armenian Relief honored him as FAR marked the 20th anniversary of its relief work in Armenia.

A gathering of remembrance

Following the church service, the large crowd gathered in Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium of the Diocesan Center for a memorial meal (hokejash) and tribute program under the auspices of the Fund for Armenian Relief. Attending the tribute were Armenia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Zohrab Mnatsakanian, and FAR Board of Directors chairman Randy Sapah-Gulian and members Dr. Aram Chobanian and Professor Annette Choolfaian.

Master of ceremonies Dr. Tavit Najarian paid tribute to the “legacy and selfless devotion of my friend, my confidant and my cherished adviser Dr. Housepian who touched our lives in so many ways.” He introduced Dr. Aram Chobanian, noting that the two men were kindred spirits “both professionally and intellectually.”

Dr. Chobanian called his relationship as “friendship between mortals and contemporaries in medicine.” He said that in addition to his medical efforts in Armenia, Dr. Housepian was involved in many other projects, including the National Library and the Children’s Nutrition Project.

“Early in his career, he went back to new approaches to Parkinson’s Disease, and brain areas which became the foundation for robotic surgery,” Dr. Chobanian said. Dr. Housepian was the recipient of many honors, and an Endowed Professorship was established in his name by Columbia University.

Dr. Housepian “led a life of purpose,” said Dr. Chobanian, quoting the legendary poet Robert Burns, and extolled his extraordinary personal qualities, including humility, modesty, respect, thoughtfulness, integrity, and his dry sense of humor. “He was a consummate physician and a superb role model,” Dr. Chobanian said.

Annette Choolfaian, a medical manager at several American medical institutions, worked “with great resolve” with Dr. Housepian to bring young medical professionals from Armenia to America “to hone their skills at various hospitals here,” said Dr. Najarian in his introduction.

With obvious emotion, Ms. Choolfaian recalled the 20 years of “good times where we did major things in Armenia. Though Dr. Housepian was a man of few words, he was never afraid to confront the truth. We have an empty seat at the table, but he will always be with us,” she said.

A multimedia presentation depicted facets of Dr. Housepian’s life. His father was born in Kessab, Syria, fought with the resistance in Zeitoun, went to Alexandria, Egypt, and in 1900, came to the U.S., where he studied medicine. The elder Dr. Housepian and his wife Makrouhi had two children: Edgar and Marjorie, who became a well-known author.

As a young man, Dr. Edgar Housepian wanted to be a pilot and joined the Naval Air Force. Following his service, he studied medicine on the GI Bill, became an eminent neurosurgeon, authoring more than 100 books and articles, and receiving numerous awards, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

He married the late Marion Housepian and the couple had three children, sons Steven and David, and daughter Jean.

A family tribute

With a light-hearted manner, and using a series of family slides, Steven Housepian revealed his father’s playfulness, recalling episodes from his childhood, such as the time Dr. Housepian taught his children a CPR course in their home basement.

“He was an up-and-coming neurosurgeon who liked a good time, a man of many hats,” said Steven Housepian with emotion. “His most powerful trait was integrity.”

Daughter Jean, a professional registered nurse, quietly called her father the “best dad and granddad in the world.”

“He shaped me. He was the glue that kept the family together all over the world, and one of the smartest people, with a great memory. Our family was truly ‘a houseful of love,'” she said, referring to the book by the same title authored by her aunt, Marjorie Housepian Dobkin.

She went on to speak of her father’s love of jazz, photography, his fun-loving and his romantic natures, and his embrace of other cultures. “He was a true New Yorker, who taught us to treat all with respect, and do the right thing, not the easy thing,” she said. “He always said, ‘Talk less and listen more.'”

Son David shared his memories and read his father’s favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s If. “He taught us that life is what you make it,” he said. “It’s about the ride, not the destination.”

Closing the inspiring memorial, Dr. Najarian called Dr. Housepian “a remarkable individual in the true sense of the word, a renaissance man—both professionally and intellectually.”

“Through his activities at FAR, he touched the lives of so many, both here in the states, and in Armenia,” Dr. Najarian said. “And he did so with his typically modest and dignified mien.”

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