John Markarian was 90 when he told me to call him “Johnny Boy.” As delightful as it sounded then, it is even more wonderful today. John celebrated his 104th birthday Tuesday.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, John has a right to be called Reverend. With a PhD in theology, he has a right to be called Doctor. And as the founding president of Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon, he has a right to be called President. But what he prefers to be called is Johnny Boy. Which tells you just about everything you need to know about him.
John is staggeringly well educated (he once told me he doesn’t get to “use his Greek” unless he is reading the Old Testament to prepare a sermon), and devoutly spiritual (if you find yourself doubting the existence of God, don’t worry, John has enough faith for all of us), but what he is mostly is playful. He finds joy and sees beauty everywhere.
John was nearly 90 when we met in the winter of 2007. It was at an indoor tennis club. He apologized for cutting our conversation short because he had to hurry home to shovel snow. A few weeks later, he said he was on his way to visit a sick friend, also 90. When I asked if he would tell his friend if he just finished playing tennis, he said, “God no. I tell him getting old is no fun, all my joints ache and I can hardly get out of bed in the morning.”
One day John told me he was working on a book. He asked if I’d edit it. I was apprehensive. If it was not good, could I be honest without harming our budding friendship? But after reading the first chapter in his home in West Pittston, I said, “John, you don’t need an editor, you need a publisher.”
“What I really need,” he said, “is motivation.”
I was only too happy to provide that motivation. For the next two years, I stopped by every week to look over his work. Knowing I was coming was the incentive John needed to keep writing.
The book is a memoir, John’s life story, but it reads like a Tom Clancy novel, especially the part about living through a seven-year civil war in Lebanon. Life on the streets of Beirut was cheap. At one point, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, president of American University of Beirut, was assassinated. A dear friend of John and his wife, Inge, Dr. Kerr was the father of Steve Kerr, former NBA basketball player and current coach of the Golden State Warriors.
The title of John’s book, “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, John 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 the Markarians’ apartment. “Why don’t you come in and I’ll put on coffee and we can talk?” John suggested. Taken aback, they said, “Okay.”
“First,” Inge ordered, “you have to leave your guns in the hallway.” They did.
Not every story in John’s book has to do with war. The 2,500-mile drive he and Inge embarked upon from Beirut to her native Witten, Germany, with their cat, Balthasar, in an old VW that could go no more than 25 mph, is hilarious.
As film-maker John Ackourey videoed John on his 100th birthday, John told him this one: “When I was teaching at Princeton University in 1944, we were processing into a convocation when we noticed an old woman with straggly gray hair seated in the front row. No one knew who she was. When we got closer, we were surprised to see she held a pipe in her teeth. And when we got closer still, we were even more surprised that ‘she’ was Albert Einstein.” Einstein lived at Princeton from 1935 until his death in 1955.
I still find it hard to believe that this worldly, and in a way otherworldly, man has become my friend. John and I are pals. Once, after a “pit stop” on our way to New York City for a book presentation, as we got back into the car, John 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.
John attributes his playfulness to his faith. In an exquisite yet understandable way, he describes belief in Christ as true liberty. A liberty, he writes at the conclusion of his book, that “sets humanity free to dance and sing and play together as friends.”
For the past 14 years, Johnny Boy and I have done exactly that.
Ed Ackerman writes the optimist. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.