A fire burns brightly.
History will remember the military academies of the United States as serious, tough as tempered steel and proud. This was especially true during the years of recovery following war. The schools trained their young men toward the purpose of serving their country with honor and strength, but each fought damned hard to be the best. Competition between schools was notoriously intense. Nowhere was this seen more vividly than on the battlefield of athletics.
One of the fiercest rivalries took place between the Midshipmen of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and the Cadets of the West Point Military Academy. When these two schools got together in active sport, the air would ignite. Hundreds of young men dressed in uniform would lift up to the rafters cheers for their classmates and then bear down upon the opposing school’s players with taunts and deafening, furious noise. Home field advantage equaled a sixth player on the basketball court or an extra ten pounds of muscle in the boxing ring.
In January of 1947, the Midshipmen boxing team drove the sixty miles from Kings Point, New York, to face the Cadets from West Point, New York. The Midshipmen were ready, full of bravado and nervous energy. Some of these young men bore scars, both mental and physical, from active duty in World War II. All of them knew friends, family members or classmates who had died fighting in foreign lands. These young men weren’t afraid of getting hurt in the ring—fear couldn’t cut through their adrenaline or through the bonds of school loyalty.
Fighting in the 130-lb division was a senior named Bob Thomasian—a southpaw. In the locker room prior to the match his trainer said, “You don’t want him thinking about your left, Bobby. Let him see your right. Protect your head with the left hand until you see an opening. Then let him have it.” Bob, and the rest of the team, had heard the buzz about his match. The guy he was to face was a plebe, a first-year cadet, but had a menacing knockout punch. “Nine fights, zero losses, nine wins by knockout” his card read. The trainer finished wrapping Bob’s hands and wrists. Five minutes left till fight time.
Six years earlier, on a busy corner of Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, Hosrov Thomasian was talking with one of his regular customers, renowned professional boxer, Tony Ross, the leading contender for the lightweight title during the 1920s and ’30s. The two men had been laughing, sharing stories and jokes, but in a thoughtful moment Hosrov said, “My boy, Bobby, he’s thirteen now and coming to the age where trouble will begin looking for him. He could use some toughening up. Would you work with him?” Between the two men an agreement was made.
Hosrov treated his customers like family. His shoe store, named “Tom’s,” carried a well-deserved reputation for service due to his tireless work ethic and his easy-going, sociable nature. He spoke with equal ease and confidence with the wealthiest lords of industry as he did with children being fitted for their first pair of shoes. To the casual observer it would have appeared that Hosrov had been raised within a strong, secure family. Had circumstances been different, that might have been the case. How he managed to be seemingly free from his tortured family history is a wonderful mystery.
When Bobby wasn’t at school or working for his father or raising mischief with his friends, he spent hours at the gym jumping rope, shadow boxing and frequently sparring with kids two and three years older than himself. Over the course of two years he developed through discipline the solid inner core of a fighter. And in ways he would later be able to put into words, the single-minded focus of boxing was an ideal training ground preparing him for the things he would fight for throughout his entire life. In time Bob would come to understand that if you are observant and understand that your time on earth has a purpose, you’ll find that life’s tendency is to come back full circle.
Bobby walked out of the locker room and into the arena with a bounce in his step, shaking the tightness out of his arms, shoulders and neck. The West Point crowd bristled in confident anticipation. They knew their guy had this one licked and they expected nothing less than a knockout blow to lay the Midshipman on his ass and settle this fight.
Early into the first round, the mood of the arena changed completely. Confidence turned to caution. “Looks like we got a lefty on our hands.” “Why does our guy keep backing up?” Thomasian fought on his toes, his momentum almost always moving forward; the mental advantage was his. Most swings glanced off the opponent’s gloves and arms with no effect. No pain, no points. Bobby threw body blows like pumping pistons both to take the wind from his foe and to get him to lower his guard. With his forward fighting style, he was able to get at the inside and regularly frustrated other fighters who couldn’t find power from a shorter strike. They couldn’t gain a clear vision of where to punch or when to avoid being punched.
At the two-minute mark, the bell sounded, ending the first round. A boxing match at the collegiate level was three rounds. Six full minutes is a short time to determine a fight’s winner so the contestants battled furiously. Bobby’s trainer toweled the sweat from his face and said, “Keep mixing it up, stay on the offensive. You cut his eye and he knows it. If he’s smart he’ll protect it and leave other openings. Take him this round.”
Less than a minute into the second round, the referee waved for a break in the fight. The Cadet’s gash had spread. Blood covered the right side of his face, and as a result the fight was stopped and, according to college regulations, ruled a draw. Had the match been called off in the third round, the injury would have been ruled a technical knockout giving Bob the win.
At the end of the night, when the team was recalling the heroic and tragic details of their matches, Bob shrugged and said of his fight, “At least he didn’t knock me out like he did everyone else.”
Thomasian’s ability in the ring caught the attention of scouts and managers. He was invited to try out for the 1948 Olympics and at another time was approached by a professional boxing club. He turned down both opportunities. In the academy Bob earned $60 per month, part of which he dutifully sent to his family, the rest he saved. He thought briefly about boxing professionally. On the table was $300 every week to fight just one bout on Friday nights, but he knew well what was at stake—his integrity and his future. He was warned by his college coach to never box for money, that the fights were rigged and the system was corrupt and dangerous. It didn’t matter; the lure of substantial money had little effect. Bob had made choices from a young age that began to define his character, his goals, and ultimately his purpose. He’d have plenty more opportunities to fight in his future, just not in the ring. After the 1947 season, he hung up the gloves for good.
As the oldest of five children, Bobby grew up with a keenly inquisitive nature, acting the part of the trailblazer. He asked a lot of questions, kept an ear cocked toward the conversations of the businessmen in the store, and was always reading. Whether it was to quell a barrage of questions or meant to steer his son toward understanding, one day Hosrov took his ten-year-old boy by the shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, “The minute you start asking ‘why?’ you’re going to get a lot of answers, then it’s your job to sift through those answers to find the best ones.”
Already, young Bobby had a lot of answers, but not to the questions that itched the deepest. “What really happened to my grandparents? Why don’t I have uncles and aunts like my friends do? What does it mean that I’m an Armenian?” His father and mother said very little about their own past and the families they once had, making Bobby all the more assertive to find answers for himself.
Some questions can be answered with words. Other questions, like the ones that occupied Bob’s thoughts, can never be fully addressed. The answer to those questions is the lighting of a fire that burns inside. Not everyone is driven by an inner fire, by a passion, a need to take action and make decisions that make a difference. Young Bob felt his fire ignite already at the age of ten. He knew then, in a vague way, that he wanted to take part in helping to resolve the issues that came with being born an Armenian, a son of the Genocide. From that early age on, this would be a priority in his life.
Bob never could understand why his father distanced himself from his past, his country of origin—why wasn’t he more distressed, more angry? Why wasn’t he doing anything to right the wrongs of the past? “I imagine I would probably be a different person had my parents lived to raise me, Bobby,” said Hosrov in a rare moment of reflection. “There’s very little I want to remember about growing up in Turkey. So much of my time was spent finding ways to survive and trying to flee the country. You see, if you were an Armenian male in Turkey, you were marked for death. All Armenians practiced vigilance, but my family had to be especially aware. The Turkish government targeted my family, I think, because of our ties to the Church. Through all of the 1800’s, every generation in my family raised an Armenian Apostolic priest to serve the church. This was a great honor for our family. Priests in Armenia were respected leaders. However, because of their position they were among the first to be tortured and killed by the Muslim Turks.
“My parents and most of the people in our village of Najaran were killed when I was seven years old. That was the year 1895. It’s reported that three-hundred thousand Armenians were killed that year by the order of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, the leader at that time of the Ottoman Empire. The last time I saw my parents was the day they hid me in the house of a family of American missionaries. It was while I was living with this family that I decided one way or another I would make it to America.
“I owe those missionaries my life and my livelihood. In the school run by the missionaries, I learned tailoring and how to make and fix shoes. They taught us basic skills we could use anywhere. Until we learn to fly, people will always need shoes.”
Hosrov lived in Turkey until the age of twenty-five under constant fear of the Turks. He had married and fathered a son, but in 1913 it was clear that he would have to leave his life and his family in Turkey behind or face certain death. The Turkish Army was drafting all Armenian men between the age of eighteen and fifty under the guise of building a defense against the Russian Czar and Western Europe. Once under the thumb of the army, the Armenian men were summarily murdered leaving the remaining women, children and elderly defenseless against the massacres, deportations and death marches that followed in 1915. “With a few gold coins I had saved,” recalled Hosrov, “I ran away traveling north for 200 miles only under the cover of night and made my way to Trebizond on the Black Sea. I spent the last of what I had to gain passage on a Greek freighter bound for America. I had planned to get my wife and son out of Turkey as soon as I had the means to do so, but with the start of the Great War in 1914 and the massacres of the Armenian population within the Turkish Empire in 1915, I never had the opportunity to save them.”
Even while retelling his pained past, Hosrov revealed no animosity, only gratitude for the opportunities in his life. Thinking back, Bob would say of his father, “He had a gentle nature, was always pleasant, easy going and was very tolerant of others. My dad was ambitious, too. When he came to the States he first worked in a Ford plant, but soon went into business for himself. He liked to be in control of his destiny—not that he desired to be wealthy, just free to chart his own way in the world. Dad loved America. He was a strong advocate for his adopted country and voted in every local and national election. As a volunteer, he served in the U.S. Army, Field Artillery, in World War I.
“My father was a natural musician and a talented poet and writer. I asked him once to write a story about growing up in Turkey and he wrote a fable with mythical creatures in mysterious worlds and he wrote it in Armenian. I eventually had it translated. To say the least, it wasn’t what I expected to read. He was more creative and inventive than I. He was quick witted and great with his hands. I don’t know where he found the time, but he would make and play unusual looking woodwind and stringed instruments of his own design.
“My dad was always working, but he enjoyed himself. His store was open seven days a week and, except for Sunday, would stay open for twelve or more hours. To the best of my recollection I can only remember two occasions when my dad closed the store and traveled outside of Detroit. The second occasion was to attend my graduation from the Merchant Marine Academy, and the first was a train ride to Montreal, Canada, to marry Martha Kalajian, my mother—it was one of dad’s favorite stories.”
“I first heard about your mother from your Uncle Samuel,” said Hosrov one evening. Bob and his siblings, Jack, Susan, Virginia and Christine, listened intently whenever their father spoke of old times. “I guess that’s not entirely true—the first time I met your mom was in Turkey, she was five years old and I was twenty at the time. I vaguely remember that day and your mother, I’m certain, doesn’t remember it at all.”
“That’s true,” said Martha, “I don’t remember, but it proves God had your father and I in his plan from the beginning. Your Uncle Samuel is my stepbrother. His father, a widower, married my mother after my father died,” she explained.
“But before he was your Uncle Samuel Kalajian, and this was before I married your mother in 1925, he was my friend. Samuel had escaped Turkey and made it to America just like I had. And when I met him, he and I were trying to locate relatives from the old country who might still be living. We spent months and years contacting people at the Red Cross and writing to American and European churches that had sent missionaries into Turkey hoping to find any record of family that were still alive. I had known long before that my first wife and our son had died, but there were reports of Armenians who had escaped to many different countries. So there was still hope for finding other loved ones.
“One day Samuel rushed into the store shouting about how he had found his sister. Once I calmed him down he told me a letter came from a church in Denmark that ran a missionary school for girls in Beirut, and yes, there was a woman there, twenty-two years old with the name Kalajian. Samuel asked me for help with writing a letter to his sister, and so we did.”
Martha said, “I was stunned to get a letter from America. I shared the letter with all the girls at the school and prayed every day that I would one day get to meet another member of my family.”
“I was of course happy for Samuel and I told him I’d help him in any way I could,” said Hosrov. “He said to me, ‘I was hoping you’d say that. I can’t afford to bring her here. I do need your help.’ Helping out with money was one thing, but what he suggested next took me by surprise. He came right out and told me he thought I should marry his stepsister. After thinking about it for a few days, the idea of marrying an Armenian woman appealed to me, so I started writing to your mother, too.”
“Your father’s letters were so beautiful, and since he was able to write in Armenian, I felt comfortable with him right away,” said Martha. “I sent him letters and photos in return and before long agreed to leave Syria and marry him. The missionaries I lived with were very helpful finding me the safest passage to Canada where I met your father for the first time.”
Hosrov said, “We weren’t able to bring your mother directly to America. What happened was, America had an immigration policy that only allowed a certain number of people to emigrate from each country. And since Syria was mostly Muslim, our government gave them only a small allotment. Canada didn’t have these restrictions. When your mother’s ship was to arrive, I boarded a train and rode to Montreal. We were immediately married in a Greek Orthodox Church and because I was an American citizen, your mother was able to return home with me as my wife.”
Bob’s mother rarely talked with her children or anyone about her experiences during the Armenian Genocide. The terror of the memory affected her for her entire life. Over time, strands of her story unraveled in bits and pieces, and combined with recorded history, this is what we know:
Martha Kalajian grew up in Turkey in the village of Gulishger, a community nearly devoid of men. She, and those of her family who managed to survive, lived in poverty, hunger, and in constant fear of the Turks who murdered the Armenian men and threatened to kill the women and children or sell them off as slaves. In the year 1915, at the age of twelve, Martha and her family were forced to face their worst fears. Daily, thousands upon thousands of Armenians were uprooted from their homes by armed Turks. This was nothing new. It was commonplace for the Turks to repopulate Armenian villages with their own people in order to enforce a minority status upon the Armenians and weaken them physically and politically. The violence and the brutality that lorded over the Armenian people left them with no choice but to flee or follow instruction. Prior to taking over a village, the Turks would post signs stating a time and a known location such as a central courtyard. The Armenians would stow away any food and money they could convincingly hide and gather where they were told at the demanded time. They would then be led away from their homes not knowing whether they would live or die, and prepared for death.
In the midst of the distraction of World War I, the Turkish government annexed all Armenian communities and its residents were “deported,” which often meant forced to dig their own mass graves or led out into the desert to die. A few communities that had the advantage of natural protection by living in the hills managed to fend off the Turks with meager farming tools, a few guns and a desperate will to survive, but Martha’s village was overpowered. Along with all the townspeople, she, her five sisters and her mother were stripped of all possessions and sent on a death march into the Syrian desert to a place called Der-Zor, several hundred miles from their homes. Martha was the only one in her family to survive the grueling march, and may not have lived much longer had she not been rescued by Danish missionaries. It can be assumed that for Martha to be rescued, it meant she first had to be purchased.
Martha lived for ten years at schools for girls in the areas of Allepo and Beirut. The students, most of whom were orphans, were taught sewing, needlework and domestic skills—things Martha had already been taught by her mother when she was a young girl. Martha’s life was simple and she filled it with music, singing, praise and prayer. She asked for little and gave her all. This self-same spirit filled her marriage and family life.
Tom’s Shoe Store was a hub of activity in the 1920s and ’30s. It was the daytime equivalent of the evening watering hole. Its location on a busy corner of Woodward Avenue ensured a regular flow of customers even during the height of the Great Depression. In that very trying era, instead of making or selling new shoes, much more of Hosrov’s business was in repairing shoes his customers hoped would only need to last through one more cash-strapped month. The men sitting at the shoeshine stations where Bob occasionally worked filled his ears with talk of every subject on the horizon. People can sense when someone is honestly listening, and they respond to that. “Working at the store gave me a lot of insight into humanity,” said Bob. “Politics, religion, social issues, union issues, labor issues, money, who has what, who has nothing—I was exposed to all of that as a kid.”
Hosrov and Martha saw that their oldest boy was growing up streetwise and responsible. Hosrov often invited Bob to give his thoughts and advice about business decisions for the store. And Martha, who placed a great deal of faith in God and lived her faith everyday, encouraged Bob to explore different religions, understand them and come to his own conclusions about his beliefs. There were not the luxuries, the influence of media or the attitude of entitlement so prevalent today. But exactly as we find in this day and age, there was a choice to be made, a choice to determine a way of life: Lead or Follow. Bob felt in his gut that he needed to amount to something. He knew that in order to have influence, be successful and at the same time keep a clear conscience, he would have to take on responsibilities above and beyond what was expected of him. He taught himself to expect more from himself.
Bobby sought out challenges and he ran from mediocrity. There was an intensity, a look in his eye that saw the bigger picture. When his parents asked him what he wanted to do about high school, they weren’t at all taken aback when he told them he was going to leave the neighborhood school system and would attend Cass Technical High School because of its superior teaching. And when it came time to decide which courses to focus on, Bob looked beyond his own interests. He saw everyday the people who were struggling to find work. So although he desired to study history—especially that of his ethnic heritage—he knew there was and always would be work for engineers. His common sense didn’t diminish his passion for history; rather, he put first things first.
Bob learned to trust his instincts and to act on them. But he is the first to admit that even instincts—especially instincts—must fall under a set of foundational guides if they are to be trusted:
Instinct Guide #1:
Give a Damn.
Instinct Guide #2:
Live Morally. It is the Salvation of Civilization.
Instinct Guide #3:
Find Big Problems and Use Simple Solutions.
At the end of the day Bob stands with confidence on the choices he makes.
“It’s not complicated,” he’ll tell you. “I’ve taken numerous college level psychology courses and got fed up with their selfish, rationalizing babble. Real freedom, real life, is to look at a situation and try and make it better. It’s that simple. We used to have heroes in this country. Now we have celebrities. We need more heroes.”