Armenians of Colorado Celebrate 40th Anniversary

VIEW GALLERY: Current and past board members of Armenians of Colorado (AOC) celebrate the organization’s 40th birthday at a Denver Aquarium gala attended by 200 guests on November 2 (Photo by Evan Semón)

A sold-out banquet gala attended by more than 200 community leaders, public servants, activists, and supporters celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of Armenians of Colorado at the Denver Aquarium on Saturday, November 2.

Emceed by Emmy-nominated reporter Connor Wist, who currently serves as South Metro Fire Rescue’s spokeswoman, the event celebrated four decades of community building, acknowledged key leaders, and concluded with a two-hour concert and dancing.

The day started with cocktail hour and silent auction, after which the Master of Ceremonies welcomed the attendees, previewed the day’s program, shared details of her own Armenian heritage, and invited Armenian Prelacy Priest Fr. Nareg Pehlivanian to lead the attendees in prayer.

Official Statements

Colorado State Representative Daneya Esgar presented a flag flown over the Colorado State Capitol on behalf of Governor Jared Polis to welcome Dr. Armen Baibourtian, Consul General of Armenia based in Los Angeles. In her remarks, Representative Esgar shared memories of her recent trip to Armenia, organized by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Western Region, as well as broke the news of an upcoming legislation aimed at mandating Armenian Genocide and Holocaust education in the State of Colorado.

Wist then introduced Guest of Honor Consul General Dr. Baibourtian, an academic and seasoned diplomat, who has worked at the United Nations, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry, and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and who returned to foreign service in 2018 following the peaceful Velvet Revolution. In his keynote remarks, the Consul General of Armenia praised AOC’s exemplary, decades-long service and numerous accomplishments, including the establishment of the Colorado State Capitol Armenian Memorial Garden and Khachkar Memorial, as well as the Armenian School. He thanked the AOC Board of Directors and volunteers under the leadership of Sona Hedeshian. The Consul General also referenced his interactions with distinguished members of the local Armenian community from the previous day, which had included a dinner meeting with prominent Denver attorney Hermine Kallman and others.

9.Governor Jared Polis proclaimed November 2, 2019 as “Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Armenians of Colorado Day”

Governor Jared Polis proclaimed November 2, 2019 as “Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Armenians of Colorado Day”

Following Dr. Baibourtian’s remarks, Governor Jared Polis’s Community Engagement Coordinator Sam Bahrami read the gubernatorial proclamation that declared November 2, 2019 as “Celebration of the 40th anniversary of Armenians of Colorado Day.” The Governor’s proclamation praised AOC as “the largest and oldest nonprofit organization serving the Centennial State’s rapidly growing and vibrant Armenian community” and noted that “Coloradans of Armenian descent have greatly contributed to the administration, arts, business, education, media, sciences, and sports in the State of Colorado.”

The Governor’s proclamation also highlighted AOC’s partnership “with the Armenian National Committee of America in establishing the Sardarapat Armenian Memorial Highway in 2018.” Notably, the proclamation stated that the Colorado State Capitol Armenian Memorial installed by AOC in 2015 is a “hand-crafted replica of a Djulfa khachkar (cross-stone) that had been destroyed during the 1997-2006 erasure of 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan.” Incidentally, in April 2019, the Colorado State Senate also recognized this monumental destruction through Senate Resolution 19-012, which the perpetrator country Azerbaijan vehemently denies, calling it “Cultural Genocide.”

Then Maytham Alshadood, District Director for Congressman Jason Crow, presented a Congressional Record Tribute in honor of AOC’s 40th birthday. Before reading the text of the Tribute, Alshadood told the audience how honored and excited Congressman Crow was to preside over the United States House of Representatives when on Tuesday, October 29 it overwhelmingly recognized the Armenian Genocide through the historic House Resolution 296. Congressman Crow’s tribute, which is part of the permanent Congressional Record of the 116th Congress, noted in part that “From teaching the Armenian language and cultural traditions to raising awareness about Armenian history, AOC has been the pillar of the Centennial State’s rapidly growing, vibrant Armenian community.” The tribute further noted that “AOC has also been instrumental in partnering with the Armenian National Committee of America to establish the Sardarapat Armenian Memorial Highway in my District in 2018 to mark the centennial anniversary of the establishment of the Armenian Republic and to celebrate Armenian Genocide survivors’ determination to save their nation from total extinction.”

Congressman Crow’s tribute also acknowledged “AOC’s landmark achievement, the Colorado State Capitol Armenian Memorial Garden… established in 1982” and the recently-added “replica of a medieval Armenian khachkar (cross-stone) in memory of the victims of all crimes against humanity and in tribute to Coloradans who participated in the Near East Relief’s philanthropic efforts to rescue and raise 132,000 orphans of the Armenian Genocide.” Notably, the tribute states that “This khachkar memorial is a recreation of one of the 3,000 Djulfa cross-stones destroyed during the Nagorno-Karabakh [conflict].” The tribute further stated that “Because the fact is, while the Armenian genocide occurred generations ago and an ocean away, we still feel its pain. We have seen how easily the same motives that allowed the Armenian genocide to occur still happen to today. As we have learned, all too often an assault on any ethnic group or religion is an assault on all of us.”

Then Alexandra Alonso, Community Liaison for US Senator Michael Bennet, read a message from Senator Bennet, expressing his support for the Armenian community, praising the House passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution, and congratulating AOC on its 40th birthday.

Annie Larson, Regional Director for US Senator Cory Gardner, also congratulated the organization’s birthday and conveyed Senator Gardner’s staunch support for Senate Resolution 150, the Armenian Genocide resolution. Incidentally, earlier in 2015, Larson accepted the AOC Champion of Justice Award on behalf of Senator Gardner for his original co-sponsorship of the US Senate Armenian Genocide resolution. The award is displayed at Senator Gardner’s Denver office.

Erika Blum, Constituent Advocate for Congressman Joe Neguse, read a letter from the Congressman congratulating AOC on its 40th birthday and sharing his excitement about supporting the passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution.

Following speeches from elected officials, Master of Ceremonies Wist asked all current and former AOC board members and volunteers to stand up and be recognized.  Addressing the volunteers, Wist stated that “As the community was forming, you organized more than cultural, and social events, you commemorated the genocide, held church services, organized picnics and celebrated the holidays together and helped each other. As the community’s needs grew and other organizations joined our community, AOC was able to concentrate on its core mission of fostering a cohesive Armenian community and furthering the understanding of the Armenian history, culture, language and customs within the community.”

She then recognized representatives of AOC’s local sister organizations: Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Vahe Berejiklian, The Diocese of the Armenian Church’s Gevorg Saribekyan, ANCA’s Denver-based Western Region Community Coordinator Simon Maghakyan, and Society of Orphaned Armenian Relief’s Tatevik Hovsepyan. In addition to local Armenian organizations, leaders of other community organizations – most notably Coalition Against Global Genocide Founder and Director Roz Duman and First Baptist Church of Denver’s Minister Brian Henderson – were also in attendance. Also in attendance was former Colorado House Speaker and recipient of the 2015 AOC Champion of Justice Award Andrew Romanoff, and his US Senate campaign general consultant and president of The Stark Group Elen Asatryan, who previously served as Executive Director of the Los Angeles-headquartered ANCA Western Region.

Award Ceremony

The first award for humanitarian efforts and dedication to the Armenian community was presented by Anahid Katchian Logue, one of the founders of AOC who herself received the Outstanding Service Award in 2015. Logue presented the Outstanding Service Award to Artemis Der-Balian Khadiwala for her decades-long service to the Armenian community and humanitarian assistance to Armenia, which was accepted by her sister and former AOC Board President Silva Maranian.

The second award was presented by music enthusiast Koko Vayedjian, who handed the Outstanding Creativity Award to three-time Emmy-winning composer Denise Gentilini. She was recognized for promoting Armenian culture, history, and genocide awareness through art, and in particular for her musical I Am Alive that told the story of survival and courage of her grandparents, who were orphaned during the Armenian Genocide. While presenting the award, Vayedjian called Gentilini’s musical “monumental,” and shared his awe for the award recipient’s consistent efforts to tell the history of the Armenian community through art.

Then long-time AOC Board President Sona Hedeshian presented two surprise awards to two key individuals for community organizing.

Hedeshian presented the Outstanding Service Award to Simon Maghakyan, who has been instrumental in building the Colorado State Capitol Khachkar and establishing the Sardarapat Armenian Memorial Highway, stating that “this community would not have been the same without Simon.”

Hedeshian then presented the Outstanding Leadership Award to Byuzand Yeremyan, praising him for his dedicated service as AOC Board Vice President, including for stepping up and taking on a variety of duties, such as securing funding for and organizing complex logistics for the Armenian School.

After concluding the awarding of key community leaders, two public servants were honored for their staunch support of the Armenian community.

Honoring Legislative Champions

The first public servant award – Advocate of Justice – was presented by 2015 Community Pillar Award recipient and Colorado state personnel administrator for decades Ken Allikian, who along with 2015 Outstanding Service Award recipient Kim Christianian had been instrumental in building strong ground for Armenian advocacy in Colorado. The recipient of the prestigious Advocate of Justice Award was Colorado State Senator Dominick Moreno, a longtime supporter of the Armenian community, in recognition of promoting Armenian Genocide awareness and Colorado-Armenia friendship.

In the introductory remarks, Allikian stated that as a state Senator and former state representative, Dominick Moreno has been a consistent champion of the Armenian community in the Colorado Capitol, including sponsoring the 2019 Colorado Senate Armenian Genocide resolution that also recognized the Republic of Artsakh. Upon accepting the Advocate of Justice award, Senator Moreno recalled how his friend Armene Brown – an active member of the Armenian American community and leader with Adams County Democrats – introduced him to the Armenian community, after which he has consistently sponsored the Armenian Genocide resolution. Senator Moreno also recalled his ANCA Western Region legislative trip, along with State Representative Daneya Esgar, to Armenia earlier this year, stating that “we left our hearts in Armenia.”

The recipient of the highest award for political achievement, Champion of Justice, was announced by long-time community activist Simon Maghakyan. In introducing the recipient of the award and the night’s Guest of Honor, Maghakyan mentioned that Rep. Cole Wist – whether as an elected official or as citizen – always supports the Armenian community without preconditions, as demonstrated by his tweets this week urging Colorado’s Congressional delegation to vote for the Armenian Genocide resolution. “The Armenian community doesn’t have ‘political capital’ in our relationship with Rep. Wist,” Maghakyan concluded, “He is the Armenian community’s political capital.”

In accepting the Champion of Justice award for championing the Sardarapat Armenian Memorial Highway, among other Armenian causes, Rep. Wist shared the history of his Irish grandmother who had  urged his children to remember their heritage. He also recalled his wife’s Armenian family background and how they immigrated to the US just in time to escape the Armenian Genocide. Rep. Wist also thanked his daughter, Connor Wist, for emceeing the program. Rep. Wist currently works as a lawyer for Squire Patton Boggs law firm in Denver and previously served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives, where he was elected as Assistant Minority Leader. During his time in office as an elected official, he passed significant legislation and became the legislative champion of Colorado’s very first highway honoring an ethnic community, the Sardarapat Armenian Memorial Highway.

Acknowledging Past and Present Supporters

Following the granting of public service awards, the Master of Ceremonies recognized the following Colorado-based businesses – Kalita Grill, Vic’s Jewelry, House of Bread, and Transportation By Demand –for supporting the event, and Melior Home Health and Mike’s Camera for sponsoring the awards, as well as US Bank for sponsoring the 40th anniversary gala.

Mike’s Camera’s contribution to the gala included identifying and inviting Colorado’s young Armenian rising stars, including aspiring lawyer Adrina Kachaturian, award-winning emerging filmmaker Hasmik Kachaturian – who won best production and best screenplay last year at the Colorado Film School annual competition, and Nick Portnoy, a senior in political science and former ANCA Western Region intern who plans to attend law school.

After acknowledging the sponsors, three prominent community members lost last year were honored and recognized, including strong community supporter George Reish and Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Colorado School of Mines Dr. Misac Nabighian. A special tribute was paid to the late Kaloust Christianian, the patriarch of Colorado’s most active Armenian American family over the past several decades. An Immigrant that came to the United States, fleeing the war in Lebanon, Christianian settled with his wife and children in Colorado, establishing new roots. After acquiring Mike’s Camera, a small photography store in Boulder, Christianian expanded his business, with his sons following in his footsteps. Mike’s Camera became a national brand and iconic local institution. Throughout the decades, Christianian – along with his family – supported the Armenian community in many ways.

Following the tributes to the late community members, two prominent businesses were awarded for their contributions to the Armenian community.

AOC Board Vice President Byuzand Yeremyan presented the Community Champion Award to Mike’s Camera in appreciation of its decades-long support for the Armenian community in Colorado. Yeremyan shared his constant excitement of spotting different Mike’s Camera locations throughout Colorado, and how it made him proud just like when he sees an Armenian last name ending in “ian” or “yan” at the end of movie credits. The matriarch of the Christianian family, Arous Christianian, herself recipient of the 2015 Community Pillar Award, accepted the Community Champion Award presented to Mike’s Camera on behalf of her sons Alex Christianian and Jirair Christianian.

Former AOC board member and entrepreneur Vahe Christianian, who is the founder of LifePics, presented the Education Champion Award to US Bank in appreciation of the latter’s generous support of the AOC Armenian School and for sponsoring the 40th anniversary gala. US Bank’s Education Champion Award was accepted by Patrina Pettry, the Consumer and Business Banking Market Leader for Denver Market for US Bank, whose remarks mentioned her introduction to Armenian culture through her colleagues and who expressed US Bank’s readiness to continue supporting AOC’s community building efforts in Colorado.

Last, but not least, the highest AOC award for success – Lifetime Achievement – was presented by AOC President Sona Hedeshian to Charlie Papazian in recognition of making Colorado a craft beer capital of the world. Papazian’s numerous accomplishments include founding the Association of Brewers and the Great American Beer Festival, and authoring The Complete Joy of Home Brewing. He is considered the father of America’s transformational homebrewing and craft brewing cultures. Earlier this year, after decades of leadership and in celebration of his 70th birthday, Papazian retired from the Brewers Association. This was the second ever presentation of AOC Lifetime Achievement Award: in 2015, Colorado Business Hall of Fame laureate and Women’s Bank founder LaRae Orullian received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his remarks accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award, Papazian recalled his path from being a nuclear engineer to becoming the father of modern homebrewing, as well as helping the launch of the craft beer industry in his ancestral homeland Armenia. While the beer industry of the Armenian homeland, Papazian stated, had a long road ahead, he shared a historical menton of beer in ancient Armenia, chronicled by Xenophon 2,400 years earlier: “There was also wheat, barley, beans, and barley wine in large bowls. These barley-corns were in the drink up to the brim, straws were in it, some larger and some smaller, without joints. When someone was thirsty, they had to take these straws into their mouths and suck. It was quite pure unless it was diluted with water, yet quite pleasant when one was used to it.” Papazian concluded his remarks with a toast referencing the antiquity citation of Armenian beer, wishing everyone a pleasant evening and getting used to drinking beer.

In her closing remarks, AOC President Sona Hedeshian thanked the honorees and attendees of the 40th anniversary gala, urging the community and parents in particular to continue supporting the AOC Armenian School. Toward the end of her speech, Hedeshian received a surprise from the AOC Board and the entire community by being presented with the highest AOC honor – the 2019 Community Pillar Award. While presenting the Community Pillar Award to Sona Hedeshian, Simon Maghakyan thanked her “amazing, 24/7 service to the Armenian community” over the past decade. In addition to being presented the highest AOC award, the AOC Board consisting of Byuzand Yeremyan, Narek Poghosyan, Shoghig Vayedjian, Laura Garabedian, Armene Yapoujian-Piper and Karnig Arabian presented Hedeshian with a Mount Ararat-Noah’s Ark centerpiece made by renowned Armenian American artist Michael Aram in appreciation of her praiseworthy leadership and inspiring hard work.

At the end of the program, current and past AOC board members cut the 40th anniversary cake, after which Master of Ceremonies Connor Wist reminded the audience member of the Silent Auction to benefit the Armenian School that included such unique items as a dated 1932 Armenian dowry carpet donated by The Isberian Rug Company and a Persian rug donated by Sarkisian’s Rugs & Fine Art.

Following the program, a two-hour musical performance was conducted by Artur Hakopyan – best known by his stage name Mister X, Armen Ghazarian, and DJ Edvard Dudaklian of Royal Dj Entertainment, all visiting from the Los Angeles area.

Founded in 1979, Armenians of Colorado (AOC) is Colorado’s largest and oldest nonprofit organization serving the educational and cultural needs of the Centennial State’s vibrant and rapidly growing Armenian American community.


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