Early on the morning of January 14 Ferdinand Grigoryan passed away at his home in Vanadzor. He was 59 years old.
I had the pleasure of knowing Ferdinand when assigned to assist him during his visit to Boston from the end of August to the beginning of October, 2004 to have a battery of tests performed related to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer he had received.
In the end the cancer spread rather quickly to his liver and small intestines, presumably related to an operation he had while in Boston. The operation was to remove cleanly the tumor that was growing on the head of the pancreas, but after opening the surgeons discovered that it was inoperable, as metastasis had already set in.
Ferdinand was born in Arevshat, not far from Gyumri, then moved to Vanadzor when he was 8 years old with his father and siblings, his mother having left them. He served in the Soviet army, then studied chemical engineering at institutes in Moscow and Siberia. He was married twice—his first wife and their son left him to move to Russia, unwilling to continue living during some impoverished times they were facing. He remarried to his current wife, Larissa, who was his student in a class he taught related to chemical compounding and 10 years his junior. They have two daughters, Ashna and Ariga. Ashna is studying for her master’s degree and has been married for two years, while Ariga has mostly devoted her time to her studies and work on her father’s projects.
He worked for one of Vanadzor’s two massive state-run chemical plants as a departmental chief of operations for nearly 20 years, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union and their abrupt closing. He had first became interested environmental protection when he as well as his colleagues formed a committee to study ways in which to prevent contamination of their environment, as toxic waste was poured freely into their immediate surroundings. He then decided to make a career out of defending environmental-related issues.
He was hired as the Lori Region Environmental Minister in 1996 but resigned only after a year on the job, having been discouraged by the high level of governmental corruption. Then from 1997-2004 he served as the program manager for the Lori region’s operations implemented by Chene, a French philanthropic organization working on various humanitarian projects throughout Armenia. He left the organization so that he could finally devote himself to his tree nursery and implement his plans for reforesting Armenia.
In 1997 he founded Tsiatsan Eco Center, an organization with an agenda to reforest the Lori region, in which Vanadzor is located. Then in 2000 he co-founded Satsil (Armenian for ‘seedling’), an collective dedicated to finding ways in which to provide the most up-to-date crop growing technologies—particularly for potatoes—to struggling farmers unable to make profits at market.
In 2003 at a special conference held in Yerevan regarding forest protection, Ariga met with a representative from Armenia Tree Project (ATP), the same organization for which I worked at their headquarters in Boston and which sponsored his trip there. He met with them separately, and they entered into a partnership in which Tsiatsan (which means ‘rainbow’) would grow on a six-hectare plot of land one million trees per year, then transfer them to Vanadzor’s deforested hillsides or other severely depleted areas throughout Armenia. The plot is divided into three subplots, on which trees are planted incrementally by plot to ensure year-round reforestation. The project is already underway, and most of the first batch of saplings has already reached maturity for replanting.
Most of his life was spent in Vanadzor, as he once told me he could not live or even spend much time away from his home. His stay in Boston was grueling for him, although I kept him as occupied as best as I could, frequently taking him to various plant nurseries, forests, mountains, and the ocean. We also spent many hours scavenging for ripened tree seeds he would manage to smuggle with him into Armenia. We were together nearly 12 hours every day for just over 30 days.
During the 1988 earthquake Ferdinand explained to me that he was on his feet with no sleep for over three days in the completely leveled city of Spitak, searching for survivors and excavating bodies from the wreckage. He only received rest after a special relief nurse from France injected him with a sedative when he was stopping to eat in order to prevent him from overexerting himself.
Around that same time he became a member of the committee for the struggle and defense of Mountainous Karabagh, the same that was headed by political figures Levon Ter-Petrossian, Robert Kocharian, and Vasken Manoukian, among several others. He would leave the organization when it transformed into the Pan-Armenian Movement political party—which led the country for the first five years of its independence—refusing to participate in national politics.
Ferdinand was a highly skilled outdoorsman, having excelled in alpinism. He was a renowned mountain climber in Armenia and trekked nearly its entire mountainous territory as well as that in parts of Russia, Georgia, and Eastern Europe. For several years he offered intensive lessons to organized groups in mountain climbing. He told me that as part of a rigorous outdoor survival train course he had once taken he was helicoptered to a remote area in Siberia and was dropped off there to fend for himself only with the clothes on his back, no provisions or navigational instruments. Two weeks later at a prescheduled rendezvous time he was picked up at the exact same spot, completely healthy. Frequently Ferdinand would take trips with his fellow alpinists at the spur of the moment, leaving his wife behind in tears as she feared each time it would be the last she saw of him.
Much of our time together in Boston was spent working at the ATP office or driving from one place to another visiting various sites and less often going to have medical tests performed. We would speak about various topics, including Armenian politics, the indifference of the Armenian people regarding their own nation and fate, and environmental protection in Armenia. Near Mount Washington, when stopping for directions, he told me that he wished for me to drive him to the desert of the western United States, and we had planned to go in early Autumn of 2005. He was in turn to take me to see various nature and historical sites, particularly in the Lori region, that he had admired and wanted to share with me.
Ferdinand was an energetic, robust man who was a devout animal lover. He would often drive about during the winters throughout Vanadzor with Ariga handing out bread to stray dogs for them to eat as he felt sorry for them. He has a dog of his own, a rare white Boxer, as well as chipmunks and various birds. He allowed his wife to care for a sickly rescued laboratory rat as well as an abandoned fox cub, which she still keeps in a special pen designed by their neighbor.
Ferdinand could also be rather silent and introspective for minutes at a time, sometimes hours. Then suddenly he would burst into conversation, rapidly talking about something that had come to mind so as to not loose his train of thought, to express whatever he intended to relay and also to engage debate.
I remember during one of our long drives he told me about the story of two frogs who had accidentally jumped into a pot of fresh milk. The two frogs were trapped and could not immediately escape. One frog had given up, believing that there was no chance to survive, and drowned. The other, determined to give every last bit of effort to free himself from his place of doom, kicked about relentlessly across the surface of the milk, only to eventually settle on a newly formed slab of butter, from which he jumped out to safety.
Ferdinand performed according to the hero of his fable, fighting with every last ounce of energy that he managed to retain. During the last two days of his life he was delirious with pain, his eyes turned to glass, and unable to stand on his own or even speak. Since his return to Armenia from Boston he must have lost over 30 pounds, his leathery skin forming tightly over his skeleton.
I believe Ferdinand was my messenger of good will, as without him I would never have met his family, with whom I have grown very close, especially with Ariga, in a short amount of time. He was one of the most inspirational and strong-willed men I have ever met, and I will cherish my memory of him until my last breath.