By Lisa Schmelz | Photo Courtesy of the Avedisian Family
What do Lake Geneva and the Statue of Liberty have in common? Armen Avedisian, a first-generation Armenian-American, who paved thousands of miles of roadway in Illinois, owned a bank in Lake Geneva, and was tapped by President Ronald Reagan to chair the commission for the restoration and preservation of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
A successful entrepreneur and longtime summer resident on Geneva Lake’s south shore, Avedisian’s quarries and patents made him millions. He retired at 49, but not really. When Citizens National Bank in his beloved Lake Geneva became available in 1980, he purchased it. Today, his legacy is an enduring testament to the power of the immigrant story — a story of first-generation Americans, who realize their grandest fortune is the freedom to succeed or fail as spectacularly as they wish.
For Avedisian, the choice was always clear: He would succeed.
“He had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur,” said his son, Guy Avedisian, in a Nov. 23, 2000, Chicago Tribune obituary about his father. “He believed very strongly in someone owning a business. He thought that one of the greatest things about this country was to be an individual entrepreneur.”
Committed to the American dream, owning a bank was a labor of love for Avedisian, says Lake Geneva resident Roger O’Neill, a longtime friend of Avdesian and his wife, Dorothy. “He was good for the town because he had access to the local businessmen, and he knew them, and he knew the area and he knew what they were facing,” says O’Neill.
Today his children recall a father for whom money was not the greatest treasure.
“He’d update his resume and bio frequently, and one-third of it was dedicated to his kids. He had a lot of pride in his kids,” recalls son Vann, a private equity consultant. “He was very accomplished in business and civics, and yet, his children were front and center.”
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
That his own three children were front and center may have been as much parental instinct as it was gratitude for the chance to raise them on free soil. His own parents, and his first wife Dorothy Donian’s parents, came to America as refugees. Fleeing the Armenian genocide, the systematic slaughter of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, their escapes were harrowing.
“I don’t know much about the journey of my father’s father here to the U.S., but my father’s mother, I know survived the Armenian genocide. Her family was all killed. She got diphtheria and was in Aleppo in an orphanage. Her picture appeared in an advertisement in a magazine in Detroit, for the Detroit area, and a relative saw her photo, and it was asking for money, of course, and they saw her, and recognized her, and that’s how she came to the U.S,” explains daughter, Donna, who resides in Portland today.
What role do the Avedisian children think their grandparents’ experiences in the genocide played in their father’s life? “We’re all products of our parents and their experiences,” reflects Vann. “And it’s hard to really know, when you escape something like that, how it would shape you. My guess is that it was pretty important for Dad to work hard and be studious and be goal-oriented, which he was.”
THE FIRST GENERATION
Armen Avedisian was a first-generation American, who grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois. His immigrant father was a civil engineer with the State of Illinois. Avedisian received an engineering degree in 1949 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Following his graduation, he worked as an asphalt and paving superintendent. Just a few years later, he was working for a rival firm as their vice president. Before he was 30, he had his own company, Lincoln Stone Quarry Inc. in Joliet.
In 1952, he would marry his first wife, Dorothy Donian. (They divorced in 1996.) By the late 1950s, Avedisian owned his own road construction company. By 1976, he was the chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and sole stockholder of Avedisian Industries, a holding of six corporations centered in the quarrying and heavy construction industries. In 1979 he sold his companies, and a crucial patent to Commonwealth Edison. Not even a year later, though, he needed something to do. Always on the prowl for a good investment, Avedisian, also a globally renowned backgammon player, purchased Citizens National Bank in Lake Geneva and its $25 million in assets.
“He was very driven,” recalls Donna. “Once he retired from the business of road building and owning quarries and mining limestone, he got advice from a member of the Chicago business community that he shouldn’t retire and should look into some options. Suggestions were made on what to look at, and they heard of the bank in Lake Geneva being for sale.”
Helping other entrepreneurs also appealed to him. In a 1986 Lake Geneva Regional News story, a friend offered this on Avedisian’s motives for banking: “He wanted to help people,” recalled the friend, John Elasarian, a Lake Geneva restaurant manager. “When he was young and had ambitious ideas, he went to banks to borrow money, and in many cases, he was turned down.”
PRESERVING LADY LIBERTY
Patriotism also appealed to Avedisian, and in 1982 the lifelong Republican had been appointed by President Reagan to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission and Foundation. The commission’s aim was to restore and protect the aging statue and raise funds to preserve Ellis Island. On his first visit to Ellis Island, according to press reports, he simply stood silently in the deteriorating building, wondering what his “young, bewildered” immigrant parents “who could not speak English,” thought as they were processed in this very space.
As a committee member, Avedisian was taking a week off from his bank each month to fly to New York and apply what the Chicago Tribune dubbed “liberal elbow grease” to the fundraising effort.
Why not have the government pay for the restoration? “We wanted it to be a private endeavor to build patriotism around the country and deepen appreciation for what the statue and America are all about,” explained Avedisian in a June 20, 1985 story with the Lake Geneva Regional News.
His children say their father was as thrilled with the buckets full of change from school children as he was with the six-figure donations from titans of industry. In 1986, President Reagan named Avedisian to head the commission replacing Chrysler Corporation Chairman Lee Iacocca.
Fundraising efforts netted over $256 million dollars from individuals, schools, civic groups and private companies, and corporate sponsors. Reagan shared his gratitude in this letter to Avedisian:
“The work of the commission has exceeded our fondest expectations. As a member of the commission since 1982 and its chairman for the past year and a half, you’ve done yeoman’s work … The unprecedented outpouring of affection and generosity on the part of the American people in response to this historic undertaking will always remain a highlight of my years as president. Again, thank you for giving of your time and talents. Your dedication over the years has been a source of inspiration to me and the American people.”
THE SECOND GENERATION REFLECTS
Only two generations removed from genocide, the Avedisian children are keenly aware of how divided America is today. What do they think their father, a conservative Republican, would make of that division? “I don’t think he would have a very positive view on the nationalistic bent that seems to exist now,” says Vann. “He was very patriotic, but not a nationalist. He knew (nationalism) fuels genocide.”
Donna agrees. “He aligned with what would favor hard work and perseverance, and what would enable entrepreneurs to be entrepreneurs. I think he would be in favor of some commonsense immigration policies,” she reflects. “And he knew what his parents went through in the Armenian genocide.”
Of course, we can’t ask Avedisian what his thoughts would be about today’s political climate. Gone for 19 years, we can only speculate.
However, we get a sense that this actual bridge builder was, in every sense of the word, a uniter. Giving an address to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America at Ellis Island in 1998, he offered these words:
“Some years ago, I was privileged to be part of the restoration of Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. During the course of that labor of love, we learned that the Lady was much more than just metal plates supported by an iron frame. This great hall was much more than mere bricks and mortar. And, the people who entered America through these portals represented much more than flesh, blood and bone. These twin icons, and the people drawn to them, were imbued with an indomitable spirit and sense of hope. Not mere symbols, they were the embodiment of humanity’s unwillingness to succumb to oppression and hatred. They stood in stark counterpoint to the evil that has plagued mankind since the beginning of time.”
ARIAS on Geneva Lake
While Armen Avedisian raised funds to restore the Statue of Liberty, his wife, Dorothy Donian Avedisian, raised funds to bring the musical arts to Lake Geneva area schools. A classically trained opera singer, she was one of the cofounders of the Lake Geneva Floating Opera. The Avedisians were major benefactors of the Lyric Opera in Chicago and brought world-renowned opera to Lake Geneva one night a summer aboard The Lady of the Lake. Ticket prices were a then-steep $100 or more, but proceeds gave area children access to touring opera companies.
“It was beautiful,” says Sue Larkin, a longtime neighbor and friend of the Avedisians. “It was a beautiful event, and Dorothy was a singer herself and loved the arts. All of the arts.”
“Why do we want to give opera to children?” she was asked in a June 18, 1998 Lake Geneva Regional News story. “Because opera has everything. We all need creative escapes to keep our minds and souls and bodies intact, and this is one of those escapes.”
The Floating Opera had a successful run for over two decades. Today, Dorothy Avedisian is in her 90s, and resides in Illinois. For years, her family summered in Lake Geneva. The Samuel Donian Wetlands Preserve, between West Main and Center streets, was donated for public use by her family and named for her father, who also escaped the Armenian genocide as a stowaway on a ship.
Editor’s Note: Stories steeped in history are never reported alone. At The Lake wishes to thank the children of Armen and Dorothy Avedisian for helping us tell this story through their own memories, and with papers and artifacts held by the family. To learn more about the Armenian Genocide, which is still not acknowledged by the Turkish government as a genocide, visit armeniangenocidemuseum.org.