During a recent talk at USC, California’s former Gov. George Deukmejian, recounted his efforts to have the slaying of 1.5 million Armenians by the present-day Republic of Turkey during and after World War I recognized as genocide.
Deukmejian made the comments during a March 11 special lecture at USC hosted by the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, housed in USC Dornsife. Called “If I Could Do It, You Can Do It,” the talk was part of a course, “Colloquium of Armenian Studies,” taught by institute director Richard Dekmejian, professor of political science in USC Dornsife.
Responding to a question by an audience member, Deukmejian, governor from 1983 to 1991, spoke of his quest to get President Ronald Reagan to call the massacre genocide in a proclamation Reagan passed to create a living memorial for Nazi Holocaust victims. Reagan did so during a 1981 speech while Deukmejian was California’s attorney general, a post he kept from 1979 to 1983.
But while Deukmejian was governor, his impassioned appeal for a National Day of Remembrance for Armenian Genocide Victims was rejected by Reagan and Congress.
“Our country has tied itself to Turkey through NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] military agreements,” said Deukmejian, the first United States governor of Armenian ancestry and the son of Armenian immigrants. “It has been awfully hard to get them to do otherwise.”
At the event, Dekmejian introduced Gov. Deukmejian.
Dekmejian noted the former governor’s longtime support for USC and the institute. Deukmejian has visited campus many times over the years, speaking to students, and in 1988, gave the USC Commencement Address and was given an honorary degree from the university.
“In the past, we wanted to build an institute or program in the governor’s name,” Dekmejian recalled. “He declined then. So that tells you about his humility.”
That set the tone for most of the lecture, in which Deukmejian, wearing a dark grey suit, yellow tie and looking younger than his 84 years, sat informally and spoke to the audience of mostly students candidly and without notes.
“I am and always have been an average person,” Deukmejian said. “I was an average student. I’m sure all of you in this room are much brighter than I am.”
Deukmejian was born Courken George Deukmejian Jr., in Menands, New York, to Armenian American parents, who immigrated from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. His father, an Oriental rug merchant, was born in Aintab. Born in Erzurum, his mother worked for Montgomery Ward and later for New York State, among other jobs.
“My father had a concession in a major department store,” Deukmejian said. “Then the Great Depression hit. People didn’t have money to buy rugs. He struggled and my mother went to work in a factory making neckties. Many women went to work. It was hard work; she was on her feet all day.”
Growing up in a village in Albany County with no high school, Deukmejian attended secondary school at a nearby city, where he entered his first election, running for student body president as a junior.
“A week before election day my opponent’s father passed away suddenly,” Deukmejian recounted. “Things were put on hold for a week or two. I lost my first election; I did not win. But when I became a senior, I was campaign manager for a junior and we won. It was a positive experience. It was sort of my first brush with political life.”
In 1955, Deukmejian was invited to California by his sister who had moved there with her husband.
“So I got in the car with my mother and her sister,” Deukmejian said. “We drove from Albany to L.A. My mother and aunt stayed for a while. I ended up staying and living with my sister and her husband.”
By that time, Deukmejian had already passed the bar examination in New York. He studied for and was admitted to the bar in California.
“A year and a half later, I go to a wedding and meet a beautiful young lady and ask her to dance,” Deukmejian said of Gloria Saatjian, whose parents were also immigrants from Armenia. “I ask her for a date and she accepts. She lives in Long Beach, so I became acquainted with Long Beach.”
The two married in February 1957, a bond they’ve kept for 56 years. Deukmejian opened a legal practice in Long Beach, where the couple still lives. They have three children: two daughters, born in 1964 and 1969 and one son, born in 1966. He became president of his local business association and began volunteering to help re-elect his area’s assemblyman, who suggested to Deukmejian that he run for the post in the next election.
“I’m not going to run anymore; you might be interested in looking at it,” the assemblyman told him.
“In those days, legislature was part-time,” Deukmejian said. “The assembly met for six months; January to July or August. They’d take up any subject matter they wanted. In the even years, they were supposed to deal with only the budget for a month or two. Everyone had businesses or professions. It was citizenship politics.”
While in a private law practice in Long Beach with Malcolm Lucas, who later became California’s 26th Chief of Justice, Deukmejian was elected to represent Long Beach in the State Assembly in 1962. In 1966, he became a state senator. Three years later, he was the majority leader in the State Senate. He first ran for California’s attorney general in 1970, finishing fourth in the Republican primary.
“I came in fourth among four people,” Deukmejian said. “That was quite a blow. It was a lesson I learned. If you’re going to run statewide in California, you have to be well financed. And you have to have name recognition.”
He won the election for attorney general in 1978.
“I handled all of the legal matters for the state of California,” Deukmejian said, recalling working with then- (and now-) Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. “We had a little bit of friction, but not much. We got along. He decided run for U.S. senator. He had already run for president, but that didn’t work out. That meant that the governor’s office was vacant, meaning there was no incumbent.
“I had a pretty good job as attorney general with lots of wonderful people working with me. I probably could have stayed there for a long, long time. But I don’t know, maybe it’s my Armenian genes, but you always want to do something better, something bigger. So I decided to run for governor.”
The two-term governor’s advice to students was to continue to work hard and strive to do your best. He said students should pursue what they love, even if people warn them there are no jobs in that field.
“Sometimes there are shortages in openings in one type of occupation or field, but there’s never a shortage for a good person,” he said. “There’s always room for one more good person in that field. If people tell you there are too many lawyers or too many engineers and that’s what you want to do, don’t pay any attention. Get into it, but do the very best that you can."
USC Dornsife undergraduate Janet Shamilian, who is earning a bachelor’s in political science and progressive master’s degree in public administration, introduced herself to the governor after his talk. She was inspired by the lecture.
“I admired the fact that he talked about the importance of never giving up, which resonated strongly with me,” she said. “His resilience in never being discouraged despite hardships is what I will remember from his talk. His humble, kind and welcoming demeanor speaks volumes of his character.”