By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Since his passing on June 15, thousands of journalists have highlighted Kirk Kerkorian’s amazing business accomplishments and substantial charitable contributions. However, these journalists had never met this great man, as he rarely gave interviews to the media.
Having worked with Mr. Kerkorian for almost three decades as Senior Vice President of The Lincy Foundation and President of the United Armenian Fund, I would like to offer a personal tribute about this compassionate Armenian-American and wonderful human being.
I remember vividly the first time I met Mr. Kerkorian. It was at a Beverly Hills restaurant in the mid 1980’s during a small gathering of wealthy Armenians who supported Gov. George Deukmejian’s reelection. I was there as editor of The California Courier newspaper. When I walked over to introduce myself, Mr. Kerkorian recognized me right away and told me that he was a regular reader of my weekly columns. I was greatly surprised and flattered….
The next time I met Mr. Kerkorian was in his Beverly Hills office on November 1, 1989, eleven months after the devastating earthquake in Armenia. We discussed the possibility of forming a coalition of seven major Armenian-American organizations, including The Lincy Foundation, to airlift humanitarian aid to Armenia. Mr. Kerkorian offered to pay the full cost of transportation and went on to generously pledge to cover not only the cost of one airlift, but “all future airlifts as long as Armenia needed assistance.” Within a few days, the United Armenian Fund was born which successfully delivered over the next 25 years $700 million of relief supplies to Armenia and Artsakh, on board 158 airlifts and 2,250 sea containers.
In 1998, Mr. Kerkorian invited me to travel with him to Armenia, his first trip during which he pledged to Pres. Kocharian to allocate $100 million (raising it later to $242 million) to build or renovate tunnels, bridges and dozens of schools throughout Armenia and one in Artsakh; hundreds of miles of highways, roads and streets; 34 cultural institutions and museums; 3,700 apartments in the earthquake zone; and $20 million of loans to small businesses. These projects not only dramatically improved Armenia’s infrastructure, but also provided much needed employment to over 20,000 workers. Mr. Kerkorian asked me to supervise these projects, in my capacity as Senior Vice President of The Lincy Foundation.
Over the years, Mr. Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Armenians worldwide, including $14 million to provide heating oil for Armenia’s freezing population during the harsh winter of 1993, $4.5 million in 2006 to all 28 Armenian schools in Lebanon, and millions of dollars to Hayastan All-Armenia Fund’s projects in Artsakh. It is estimated that from 1989 to 2011, The Lincy Foundation contributed over $1 billion, split equally between Armenian and non-Armenian charities.
In 2011, when The Lincy Foundation closed its doors, unfounded and false rumors began circulating about the supposed reasons for its closure. The fact is that Mr. Kerkorian had planned all along that at a certain advanced age he would no longer deal with the deluge of daily requests for funding from around the world and distribute the bulk of his wealth after his passing.
I would like to conclude by mentioning some of the likes and dislikes of this remarkable Armenian-American:
-- Mr. Kerkorian detested the divisions among Armenians. It upset him to no end that Armenians could not get along with each other. He often said: “Why can’t they unite and march in the same direction?” He was pleased to see seven major Armenian-American organizations working together under the umbrella of the United Armenian Fund.
-- He cared deeply about the destitute condition of the people in Armenia and was constantly worried about emigration. He sought to create jobs so Armenians won’t have to leave their homeland.
-- He hated the limelight and never lent his name to any building or institution.
-- He was extremely wealthy, yet lived very modestly and spoke gently and politely. He preferred that people address him as Kirk rather than Mr. Kerkorian.
Finally, no one had to prompt Kirk to donate money to worthy causes. He often volunteered to make large contributions without being asked.
The Armenian nation and the world owe him a great debt of gratitude.