Bittersweet Postscript to My Friend Henry’s Story

Last week I wrote about the adventure of teaching Henry Harutunian, my ex-Soviet Olympic fencing coach friend, to drive. As promised, there’s more to his story.

In those first couple of years after Yale, with a recent graduate’s typical enthusiasm for the success of his alma mater’s teams, I followed the ups and downs of all Yale’s varsity squads. This was not hard to do, since the New York Times provided scores or league standings for a great many college teams each week in its famously weighty Sunday edition. It didn’t take long to notice that the Yale fencing team was not faring well.

Since I knew an Olympic-caliber fencing coach, I wrote to an acquaintance on the Yale faculty, Charles Walker, told him about Henry, and asked him to put me in touch with the Athletic Department. It didn’t take long to get an appointment with Delaney Kiphuth, the long-serving athletic director, and one sunny spring weekend in 1968, Henry and I drove to New Haven to meet him.1 I remember very little about the meeting, at which I served as interpreter, except for our tour of Yale’s phenomenal Payne Whitney Gymnasium. When we got to the seventh floor — devoted entirely to the fencing salon — I distinctly remember Henry’s wide-eyed astonishment as he gazed down from the balcony overlooking the fabulous facility.

Two years later, in 1970, Henry took over as Yale’s varsity fencing coach, and we’ve remained in touch (although not closely) ever since. Henry calls me every year at Christmas, and several years ago, Sandra and I spent a delightful evening as his guests. He treated us to an extensive tour of Payne Whitney (at more than 80 years old, he bounded up the stairs two at a time, leaving us in the dust), a wonderful dinner at Mory’s, which included a performance by the fabled Whiffenpoofs, and overnight hospitality at his home.

Henry at his desk on the seventh floor of Payne Whitney Gym.
Photo by Charles Melcher, ’88

The bitter part of bittersweet
Just over a year ago, on March 28, 2019, Vicky Chun, Yale’s new (since 2018) athletic director, informed the Yale Fencing Association (YFA), a group of Yale fencing alums, that she had declined to renew Henry’s coaching contract for a final, 50th, year. Chun offered no explanation then or since. Her abrupt, unceremonious notice of Henry’s dismissal, with only tepid acknowledgment of his five extraordinary decades of devotion to Yale fencing, was graceless. An uproar immediately erupted, and some 75 angry letters from Yale’s tight-knit fencing family soon rained down on Chun and Peter Salovey, Yale’s president.2

The outrage was understandable. In his 49 years as coach — as I understand it, the Ivy League’s longest-serving coach in any varsity sport — Henry didn’t just compile an extraordinary record of success,3 his coaching was renowned not only for developing his fencers’ athleticism and technique, but also their maturation as scholars and adults. He inspired respect, admiration and love from generations of fencers.

The sweet part
The fencers’ frustration and remonstrations failed to move Salovey and Chun, but the alums’ energy quickly flowed into more productive channels. An ad hoc YFA project team began planning for a gala celebration to honor “Coach” (as he is universally known among his alums). It was scheduled to take place on March 28 in New York City, and Yale’s entire fencing family was invited.

A highlight of the evening was to have been the surprise — to Henry — presentation of a book of his many fencers’ memories. Besides being asked to submit “then and now” photographs, all fencing alums were also requested to describe memorable experiences with Henry, his impact on them, and, if they wished, examples of his distinctive “Coachisms” — the colorful way, in his Russian-and-Armenian-tinged English, that he often expressed himself. I offered to edit what ultimately amounted to 121 contributions to the book. Graphic designer Suzanne Korschun, Yale Class of 1992, created a beautiful volume, Fond Memories of Coach: A Salute to Henry Harutunian from his Grateful Fencers.

Thanks to the coronavirus, the March 28 celebration had to be postponed. With any luck, it will take place in October. However, the project team decided not to wait any longer before presenting a copy of the book to Henry. Wei-Tai Kwok, Class of 1985, one of the YFA’s co-presidents and informal head of the project team, mailed him the book.

In an April 8 email to the book project team, Wei-Tai described Henry’s reaction. “Coach phoned me to say he was completely surprised and overwhelmed to receive the Memory Gift Book in the mail today. He was standing in his driveway with 34 sacks of fertilizer/manure working on his fruit trees when the postal lady handed him the package. He said he opened it and sat on the sacks for three straight hours reading it cover to cover, sometimes moved to tears. He had called his daughter Maria right away to let her know how incredible a gift this was — messages from his students across 50 years and his impact on them has genuinely filled his heart to the brim.” I phoned Henry shortly afterward and heard the same sentiments.

I can understand Henry’s reaction. The fencers’ memories are beyond heartwarming. After reviewing and editing them all, I was moved to write an Editor’s Note — the very last page of the book. It summarizes not only the effect of those memories on me. It encapsulates Henry’s impact on the hundreds of lives he has touched.

“In 1968, when the opportunity presented itself to bring Henry Harutunian to the attention of Yale Athletics, it felt satisfying to have done something good not only for a friend but also for Yale.

“Today, I feel something much stronger than the satisfaction I experienced back then. In editing all the contributions to this book, I’ve been profoundly impressed by the themes that run consistently through half a century of alumni recollections:

  • Coach was a second father.
  • His lessons transcended fencing; he taught us more than any other professor.
  • He made sure we understood that our studies took precedence over everything, even fencing.
  • He held us to the highest standards as athletes, scholars and human beings.
  • He was a role model for character, integrity, discipline, honor, dignity, loyalty, self-reliance, commitment, hard work, excellence.
  • He prepared us to lead a good life and help others.
  • His presence at weddings, funerals and sick beds reflected his deep commitment to and affection for his fencers.
  • His wisdom and advice echo strongly even years after graduation; he has helped many students and alums through difficult times, both personal and professional.

“After reviewing over a hundred such messages, I feel gratified beyond measure to have been able to help open a door that, although I could hardly imagine it at the time, would lead to the extraordinary impact that Henry has had on so many lives. By giving so much to so many, he has also given a priceless gift to me — pride in the small role I am lucky to have played in helping make possible so much good. I am deeply grateful.”

***

  1. We were accompanied by a member of the Brandeis University fencing team, where Henry was by then coaching part-time.
  2. Henry’s dismissal was conveyed to the YFA on March 28, 2019, in the following pro-forma message from Athletic Director Chun:
    Dear Members of the Yale Fencing Association:I am writing to inform you that after careful thought and consideration we have decided to move forward under new leadership in our fencing program. We appreciate Coach Harutunian’s leadership and dedication to our fencing program for the last 49 years.

    During his tenure, Coach Harutunian has produced NCAA Champions, All-Americans, and Olympians. The men captured the NCAA sabre title in 1994 and the NCAA foil title in 1992. The women, meanwhile, have won three national titles (1982, 1984, 1985).

    We will be conducting a national search to identify the next great leader for our fencing program. We are confident that we will secure someone that will provide our student-athletes with a first -class experience both athletically and academically.

    As always, we would like to thank you for your continued support.



    Henry’s dismissal elicited critical press coverage (https://bit.ly/3ejduSO, https://bit.ly/2yZKfnP, and, most notably, https://bit.ly/2XBa9Zv and https://bit.ly/34DzX8K).For the record, here is the letter I wrote to Yale’s president and athletic director:
    I am appalled to learn not only of Coach Harutunian’s dismissal, but of the shabby way in which it was done and announced. While I am not one of Henry’s many alums, I have standing: Next to Henry himself, and his extraordinary abilities, I am the person most responsible for Henry’s being at Yale.

    Henry ranks right up there among the most illustrious figures in the history of Yale athletics. With 49 sterling years devoted to his teams and to Yale — about which he waxes passionate as he talks — Henry is the Ivy League’s longest-serving varsity coach in any sport. He has brought honor to Yale and to U.S. fencing.

    It is hard not to believe that Henry’s dismissal was motivated largely by his age. Let me tell you something: I spent some time with Henry at Yale just three or four years ago. As he showed me and my wife around Payne Whitney, he was bounding up the stairs two at a time. He is as physically and mentally fit as people four decades his junior.

    To understand Henry’s alums’ passion about “Coach,” I beg you to take four or five minutes to read the speech delivered by Steve Blum, 1974 (one of Henry’s famous “three lefties”), at Henry’s induction into the US Fencing Hall of Fame in 2009 — http://usfencinghalloffame.com/wp/harutunian-henry [the site is currently “under construction”]. It includes a summary of Henry’s outsized contributions to the record books.

    Henry deserves better than to be frog-marched out of Payne Whitney. He is the quintessential class act, as is Yale. But Henry’s dismissal was the opposite of class. It was crass.

    Please correct this terrible injustice.

     

  3. The following article on the Yale Athletic Department’s website (at https://bit.ly/3cj9eRB, although I fear it may someday be taken down), summarizes some of Henry’s notable achievements:
    “A game of chess played on your feet, requiring agility, power and intelligence.”That’s how coach Henry Harutunian describes fencing. It’s a sport that provides strength of character for one’s entire life. For more than 40 years, Yale fencers with the will have been counting on Harutunian to hone the skill.

    Harutunian has produced numerous All-Americans and an NCAA men’s foil and women’s sabre champion during his tenure. Remarkably, a number of those honored had never touched a weapon before coming to Yale. The men captured the NCAA sabre title in 1994 and the NCAA foil title in 1992. The women, meanwhile, have won two national titles (1984, 1985).

    Harutunian, the 1996-97 USFCA Coach of the Year, had a distinguished career as a fencer and coach in his native Armenia. He was named eminent coach of the Republic of Armenia in 1963, while serving on the coaching staff for the Soviet national team from 1962–1966.

    One of his pupils made the U.S.S.R. Olympic team in 1956 and went on to become the first Soviet to claim the individual epee title at the Junior World Championships in 1958. Harutunian came to the United States in 1966 and coached at Brandeis for three years prior to joining the Yale staff.

    Before long, Harutunian had joined the U.S. coaching elite. He began working with the American national team in 1977, and in 1984, he served as one of three U.S. Olympic coaches. He also coached the Americans in the 1979 and 1983 Pan American Games and in the 1979, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 1993 World University Games.

    Harutunian was named Coach of the Year by the National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association in 1982 and by the IWFA in 1984 and 1985 at the NCAA Championships. In 1986, the U.S. Men’s Fencing Coaches Association selected him Coach of the Year.

    He has also choreographed stage fencing for both theater and the screen, and has acted in films. Harutunian’s philosophy of fencing is guided by the following passage from The Works of Moliere: “The eyes which watch and warn, the brain which evaluates and decides, the hand which executes the decision must harmonize precision and speed to give real life to the sword.”

    Finally, just before his dismissal, Yale’s men’s and women’s teams both took seventh place in the NCAA National Championships, Yale’s best finish in 17 years. Not long before that, Henry had been named Ivy League Men’s Fencing Coach of the Year. Just two months ago, the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association (USFCA) honored Henry with its President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement and its Award of Merit. If any further evidence of Henry’s stature were needed, it can be found in this 2010 article in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

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