Another birthday for 'Johnny Boy' … his 100th
Just when I think I've heard all of John Markarian's stories there's yet another.
The latest he told to my friend John Ackourey as he video taped a message to be played in Beirut, Lebanon, at a special dinner commemorating Markarian's 100th birthday.
Ackourey, of West Pittston, a student of mine at Luzerne County Community College nearly 25 years ago, who shot the Markarian video as a favor to me, is an accomplished documentary filmmaker who has a few stories of his own. He once spilled an entire cup of coffee on actor Anthony Hopkins, caught the son of singer Sting in his arms as he tumbled off a stage, and had a long chat with music icon Cher. But he soon realized he had never encountered anyone the likes of John Markarian. I knew that would be the case.
When you've lived 100 years, a milestone Markarian will reach on June 7, you frequently say things that cause a listener to do a quick mental calculation. It's the only way to grasp the credulity of the situation. For example, when Markarian says he was teaching in the divinity school at Princeton University in 1944, one is tempted to question how that can be. Until you do the math and realize at the time he was 27 years old.
Markarian told Ackourey the faculty members were processing into a convocation on the Princeton campus when some of them noticed a old woman with straggly gray hair seated in the front row. No one knew who she was.
"When we got a little closer," Markarian said, "we were surprised to see she held a pipe in her teeth. And when we got closer still, we even more surprised that 'she' was Albert Einstein."
Einstein lived at Princeton from 1935 until his death in 1955.
That Markarian was a contemporary of Albert Einstein at Princeton is just one of many eyebrow raising tidbits sprinkled throughout his century of living. One that readily comes to mind at this time of year when the Golden State Warriors are in the finals of the National Basketball Association championships is that he and his wife, Inge, are friends of famed Warriors' coach Steve Kerr.
They knew Kerr when he was a young boy growing up in Beirut, where he was born in 1965. Ten years earlier John Markarian had become the founding president of Haigazian University in Beirut, where the aforementioned video was played last Thursday at the aforementioned dinner.
It was Markarian, in fact, who introduced Steve's mother, Ann, to his father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, a faculty member at American University of Beirut and, later, its president.
In his memoir, titled "The Thirsty Enemy," Markarian describes AUB an a veritable oasis during the seven year period of civil war raging throughout Lebanon including through the streets of Beirut surrounding Hagazian University.
Markarian, who was out on those dangerous streets every day attempting, with the help of his wife and the Hagazian students, to feed thousands of refugees left homeless and hungry by the war while trying to hold the young college together, miraculously survived. Malcolm Kerr, however, seemingly safe on the well-lit, well-protected campus of AUB fell to an assassin's bullets right outside his office in 1984. He was 52. Steve, a college freshman, was 18.
The Markarians have stayed in touch with both Steve and his mother.
I met Rev. Dr. John Markarian (he is an ordained Presbyterian minister and has a PhD in Theology) ten years ago … on a tennis court. He was "only" 90 at the time.
We soon began working together on his book. In the credits he calls me his editor, but in reality I was more of his motivator. When we met he said he had been writing his memoir but was stalled. Asking me to edit it prompted him to resume writing.
We spent countless hours together at the Markarians' home on Susquehanna Avenue in West Pittston, reading and re-reading what he had written and then relaxing over Turkish coffee or foamy cappuccino, each expertly concocted by John himself.
The title "The Thirsty Enemy" is borrowed from the proverb "If your enemy is hungry offer him something to eat; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink." During those worn-torn years in Beirut, Markarian frequently diffused a potentially treacherous encounter by offering the "enemy" something to drink. On one occasion a group of machine gun toting militia pounded on the door of their apartment enraged that someone from that location and been shooting at them. John tried to explain this was impossible, but they were incensed. "Why don't you come in and I'll put on some coffee and we can talk about it?" John suggested at last, to which they looked at each other and said, "Okay."
But first, Inge Markarian added, "You have to leave you guns in the hallway." Which they did without question.
I have often said John Markarian's book is a true story that reads like a Tom Clancy novel and the above is just one example.
But for all his accomplishments both academic, administrative and clerical, for all his tales of life-threatening encounters, for all his worldliness, his travels, his associations with the well-to-do, what John Markarian is to me is a friend, a pal, a "best buddy."
At 100 years old, "Johnny Boy," as he will often call himself with an impish gleam in his eye, has all of the playfulness of a school boy, a chum with whom you can risk being your silly self without fear of judgment.
Just hearing him break into a throaty baritone rendition of "Old Man River" when he proclaims he could have been a Broadway star tells you he feels the same.
Once, after a "pit stop" on our way to New York City for a book presentation, as we got back into the car, John, buckling his seat belt next to me, said, "My mother used to ask, 'If a bean is a bean, what's a pea?' A great relief," he answered before I could respond. We laughed like a couple of pubescent teens.
In his video message to the gathering in Beirut, John talks about grace, the grace freely given by God.
"If you have grace embedded within you at the heart of what you hope you to be," he says, "if you are a recipient of grace and you truly believe it, then you realize that you cannot help but be gracious." And if all people were gracious, he concludes, well, you can just imagine what the world would be.
That's a world he has imagined all of his life.