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Thank you for being Vartan Gregorian

By Bradford K. Smith
April 16, 2021

Vartan Gregorian speaking in October 2010. Image by Financial Times, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like so many in the small world of philanthropy I was saddened to learn of Vartan Gregorian’s passing today, April 16, 2021. He was so many things to so many people. The articles now pouring out about Vartan limit themselves to focusing on only one or two of his voluminous accomplishments, but his life as an immigrant to this country, scholar, university president, savior of the New York Public Library, and long-time president of the Carnegie Corporation—one of America’s oldest and largest philanthropic foundations—would fill volumes.

I would see him several times a year, at a workshop, gala, for a drink or a meeting in his office. To enter Vartan’s office was to travel back to a time when the sheer mass of books in a room made the walls vibrate with the power of knowledge and ideas. To hear him speak was to witness that knowledge come to life. I still remember an evening in which he managed to quote Confucius, Karl Marx, and the Bible in one short speech. In all my years in philanthropy I have never met another foundation president who could manage that!

I was one of many who felt mentored by Vartan through the years. Though I had worked for foundations for decades, when I found myself in the position of negotiating a grant, Vartan took me to the woodshed. But in most instances, his mentorship took the form of a kind gesture, a penetrating comment, or an affectionate laugh. He had a remarkably gentle way of communicating that he believed in you and believed that you could do more.

As a philanthropist, Vartan was both classic and modern. He built on the long tradition of Carnegie and doubled down on its commitment to large ideas, such as peace and democracy, and institutions. That style of philanthropy, while there are recent signs that it may be on a comeback, was for many years out of favor. At the same time, Vartan used the power of his intellect, personality, networks, and love of the deal to partner with new philanthropists on joint initiatives to promote social justice. He deftly wrapped himself in the legacy of Andrew Carnegie to demonstrate how work on controversial issues has for more than a century been, and always should be, the role of philanthropy. Vartan was one of an increasingly rare breed of foundation presidents who believed in philanthropy itself and inspired that same belief in the Carnegie staff.

To try and thank Vartan for all the important things he has done for the world and the many lives he has touched would take forever. Instead, anyone on this planet who ever had the privilege of meeting Vartan will know exactly what I mean when I say: “Thank you for being Vartan Gregorian.”

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