READING, Mass.—One of the most prodigious athletes in AYF history finished dead last in his first race and came away intimidated.
But not a quitter.
If anything, that introduction to a Junior Olympics gave Armen Harootian enough will power and determination to dominate his field and enjoy a star-studded career in both high school and college.
What’s more, come Sept. 17, Harootian will be inducted into the Athletic Hall-of-Fame at Fitchburg State College, where he helped mobilize a track team and turned the program into a Division 3 power.
But you’d never know it from that very first track meet he had entered for his Junior AYF chapter back five decades ago.
“I looked around and saw the runners next to me, thinking it would be a stroll in the park,” recalled Harootian. “Boy, was I wrong. Even those who were a tad overweight outdid me. It was a very annoying and frustrating debut for me. If anything, it made me more determined to succeed.”
The more he ran and jumped, the greater his margin of victory. At South High School, Harootian ran cross-country and both indoor and outdoor track, setting a city record in the high hurdles and serving as captain on every team his junior and senior years.
The same could be said for his years at Fitchburg State (1959-63) after being told he wasn’t college material. Aside from maintaining solid grades and securing his degree in industrial vocational education, Harootian was high-scorer in every meet he entered all four years, setting records in the high hurdles, 440, and 880.
He also played four years of soccer, helping his team to a New England College title two years running and an appearance in the nationals where the squad placed fourth at Slippery Rock, Pa.
In between all of this, he served with the United States Coast Guard Search and Rescue Team, a stint that extended to eight years working out of a lifeboat station off Cape Ann.
But it’s his AYF years that brought Harootian overwhelming pride. Following that struggle as a 10-year-old, he rarely lost again, piling up 122.5 points in the Senior games while ranked sixth all-time. In 1974, he was crowned an Olympic King, joined by Queen Lucy (Oulohojian) Almasian, another formidable Worcester athlete, who finished her career with 81 points.
Nothing brought Harootian greater consolation than defeating the formidable Haig Bohigian in a race—the only time this prominent New Yorker ever tasted defeat while sprinting to an all-time high of 165 points.
“It came at the tail end of his career,” recalled Harootian with a wry smile. “I was just starting and had some years over him. Beating your idol is the greatest moment you could ever cherish. Haig had a reputation for greatness and was always a gentleman.”
Being etched in the mainstream of AYF Olympic prominence did much to enhance Harootian’s Armenian heritage and culture. The torch was soon passed to his children.
Son Peter was a gifted distance runner for Reading High, which ranked among the best programs in the state, and proceeded to rack up his share of AYF points for Lowell and Boston.
Daughter Amy wound up as the third best cross-country runner in California as a member of Loyola Marymount College. The mile record she set at Reading High School held for 15 years. Another daughter, Patti-Ann, wound up giving notice as a productive gymnast.
Armen and wife Pauline have been wed 47 years, and also enjoy the company of 5 grandchildren, ages 3 months to 14 years.
They met in college where Harootian was class president all four years. A photograph of the two shows them as King and Queen of the Carnival Ball.
On reflecting upon his AYF days, Harootian is quick to admit how it laid a foundation for himself and his wife and children, one that is maintained to this very day and never diminished over time.
“I was part of their AYF lives, attending their school meets and seeing all the benefits that come from teamwork and healthy competition,” he says. “My satisfaction was knowing they did well. I’m blessed with all the friendships that were created from the AYF and the contacts made throughout the business and professional world. I feel connected whenever I run into another Armenian, no matter where that may be.”
After securing a master’s degree at the University of Maryland, which he attended on a teaching fellowship, Harootian wound up coaching track there for four years.
He proceeded to Masconomet Regional High School in Boxford where he taught woodworking and drafting for seven years, also keeping active as a coach.
Retirement is hardly in Harootian’s book of ethics. He commutes 130 miles daily both ways from his Reading home to a jobsite in Smithfield, R.I., often with a daughter. The corporate world has been kind to him, carving a respectable niche in real estate management and development.
Harootian is among three partners associated with the Blackstone-Smithfield Corporation, currently building high-end residential condominiums.
“It’s a huge project that’s into its third year,” he explains. “Of the 128 units that have surfaced, 68 of them are already occupied. Thus far, $24 million has gone into the project.”
The Harootians just returned from a 17-day excursion to Alaska where they left no stone unturned.
“The majestic sights and natural beauty of the land left an indelible imprint on us,” he noted. “It was unbelievable how enormous this state is with its minimal amount of population.”
Harootian was in Boston for the Olympics, rubbing elbows with his closest friends like Harry Derderian, George Elanjian, and Leo Derderian. He appeared at the track Sunday watching the next wave of talent blitz and bolster its way to the medal stand.
Those hallowed memories will again be rekindled and provide him with a spirit that continues to remain distinct, not extinct.
“It’s not always about winning,” he tells you. “It’s not about the medals around your neck or the trophies you may earn. That’s a small part of the AYF Olympics when you consider the bigger picture. Instead, use these experiences to your advantage as I have done. Maintain the tradition and pass it on to your children and grandchildren. Celebrate the heritage. Only then will the AYF continue to grow and prosper.”