Zooming in to a Special Celebration

Coach Henry Harutunian

Yesterday, at long last, about 160 alumni of Yale University’s fencing teams Zoomed together to honor my friend — our friend — Henry Harutunian, who had served as Yale’s fencing coach for nearly half a century. The celebration had originally been scheduled to take place in person in New York City on March 28, but the explosion of COVID-19 had caused its postponement and, ultimately, its cancellation.*

As friends and readers of this blog may recall, about half a year ago I posted two items on Henry on consecutive weeks.** I’d timed the publishing of these posts to follow the presentation*** to Henry of a gift book — which I had edited — of his fencers’ many memories of their experiences with Henry, his impact on them, and examples of his colorful Russian-and-Armenian-tinged English.

His alums surround Henry in this composite of screen shots. (Courtesy of Yale Fencing Association)

The Zoom gathering — which was timed to dovetail with Henry’s 88th birthday (it’s actually tomorrow) — gave his alums and a sprinkling of Henry’s other friends**** an opportunity to share more heart-warming and funny stories. I didn’t take notes, but many of these stories had already been told in the book, Fond Memories of Coach: A Salute to Henry Harutunian from his Grateful Fencers. So I’m taking this opportunity to share some of these gems below (without attributing them to individuals), partly because many are quite amusing, but mainly to reinforce what I wrote in an editor’s note to the book about the profound positive impact that this extraordinary man — “a force of nature,” as one alum called him — has had on the hundreds, probably thousands, of lives he has touched:

• “Once a top functionary at Yale Athletics tried to conclude a coaches’ meeting by asking, ‘Henry can you live with that?’ Coach: ‘I survived the Communist Party, I will survive you.’”
• “I remember one year a prospective student who was a strong epee fencer came to visit the seventh floor. In response to a question about admissions, Coach responded, ‘You be getting in, then you come see me.’ Fencing was not a ticket to Yale, but a privilege for those who got in. For Coach, the best sign of success was not how skilled you were when you came in, but how much you progressed, both as a fencer and as a person.”
• “Coach had driven the men’s team to West Point. … We were met by a cadet assigned to shepherd us about. First came a little tour of the grounds. Our guide was talkative, assured. On and on it went. Then in a moment of candor for our edification, ‘I could have come to Yale but that would have been a big mistake.’ Coach without missing a beat, ‘Boy, that be best mistake you ever be make.’”
• “After my Dad, Coach has been the most important man in my life. At and after Yale, he has showed me how to compete, to believe in myself and to serve teams. During my four years as a Yale student, nothing else mattered half as much as what Coach taught me.”
• “Enjoy life. Soon you be in the trash and your bones are scattered.”
• “Everything [Coach] taught me — about fencing and about life — are lessons I still reference today, both on and off the strip. He is one of my great role models through his exemplification of integrity, hard work, loyalty and the pursuit of excellence.
• “Driving non-stop with Coach to and from Nationals in Florida 1988 … hilarious … BEST ROAD TRIP EVER!”
• “My favorite Coach-ism … has become my mantra. It is, ‘You must be work how hard how possible!’”
• “Coach has been a second father to me. His influence and advice have helped me to approach my own ambitions with more determination than I might have otherwise and to treat others with more consideration than I might have at first been inclined to. I should say also that the demands of fencing at Yale saved me from fully indulging in the recreational activities I had pursued with enthusiasm previously. (Woodstock attendee, age 16.) When you have to get up at 6:00 a.m. for a pair-job, you can’t be out too far past your bedtime.”
• “I used to be a whistler until coach threatened to hang me by my ankles from the balcony of the salle for whistling in that room, an act sure to bring bad luck to any space.” [In Russia, whistling indoors is said to bring bad luck.]
• “Of course, I learned other things [beyond fencing and good sportsmanship]: the strange appeal of hearing opera echoing through Payne Whitney [the gym] at odd hours, the medicinal value of pepper vodka, and the peril of whistling in the fencing room.
• “I’ll always remember the way Coach explained the importance of surprise and timing on the strip. ‘You need be fencing like Beethoven.’ ‘Beethoven, Coach?’ ‘Yes. You know: da-da-da-DA!’”
• “I guess I was feeling my oats because I attacked repeatedly, scored and won the bout quickly to everyone’s surprise. Coach leapt up, waving his hands, and yelled, ‘SLEEPING BEAUTY!! Where you be the last two years!! Oh my God. You be sleeping until now!! Sleeping beauty, you be wake up today!’”
• “Coach taught me more than most professors at Yale, holding me and all of us to the highest standards as athletes, scholars and human beings. I still hear his voice in my head when I am puzzling through a problem or trying to bounce back from a difficult situation. Coach attended my wedding, advised me on coaches in the Boston area, and taught my younger daughter to eat spaghetti properly. He remains one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known.”
• “Flushing down toilet, own self pulling chain.”
• “When Ben [a teammate and friend] developed cancer in his early 30s, he went to Coach for special training in fencing to prepare himself physically and mentally for the rigors of his treatment. He survived to have a family, but then some years later the cancer returned, and when Ben was confined to a bed in his house in Philadelphia, Coach went to him. When Ben passed away, Coach was there again, at his funeral. Coach is a talented man, but it is Coach’s dedication to his fencers that has always counted most to me.”
• “When Ben introduced me to Coach, Coach approved Ben bringing his fiancee to watch him fence with a comment I’ll always remember: ‘You be show her that you be knowing how to do.’”
• “Laughing who is laughing last.”
• “[Coach] taught me many things: how to win, how to lose, how to fight, how to be loyal, how to work hard, how to prioritize and how to do what is right even when it is difficult. That’s quite a list. Coach is undoubtedly the most important teacher I ever had.”
• “How we be challenge ourselves today?” [While on vacation!]
• “Anything you do, you do with dignity.”
• “I’ve tried my best to impart some of Coach’s wisdom upon [my kids] … but they just look at me funny when I tell them to make each motion ‘crispy’ and so that the blind can see and the deaf can hear.”
• “Coach drove our van through a stop sign on the way to NCAAs. When someone up front said, ‘Coach, that was a stop sign!’ he said, ‘I know, boy. I be have tempo!’”
• “I remember I was too skinny for competition and got sick a lot that first and second winter in New Haven. He would drag me into his private office, feed me liquid fish oil, shots of vodka and cod with pickled onions to kill the flu and feed the boy to become a man.”
• “One night at a big meet, I aggressively ran my opponent down to the end of the strip whereupon he fell down in a dramatic sprawl as I got the touch. In a fit of excitement, Coach screamed ‘NAPOLEON!!!’ at the top of his lungs and that became one of my team nicknames. I’ll never forget that incredible moment!”
• “The meaning of his lesson[s] was revealed over the next four years as I watched him do his job and learned from his example. Seeing Coach’s incredible work ethic, how he would give numerous private lessons during the day, followed by team practice from 4 p.m. until a late dinner. Then he would fix all the team’s weapons, organize traveling meets and tournaments, deal with the school and its bureaucracy, constantly hustle to raise more money to cover the team’s costs and always seem to have an open door for any fencer who was going through a tough time. Coach worked seven days a week and 18 hours a day, and never complained. He always ‘put himself to the work hardest how be possible.’”
• “The [Coach] quotes I still use today are ‘You need be strong like bull’ and ‘You need be crush bones.’”
• “I finally understood what [Coach] was saying and executed the most perfect feint-disengage of my life, hitting [my opponent] right in the flank. Coach smiled, turned away and started singing — actually singing — under his breath.”
• “[Coach’s] best fencing advice was also the best life advice. One which I took with me for a long time was that no matter who you were about to face on the strip, you were equals once you pulled on the mask and could not see the other person’s face.”
• “At a tournament in Chicago, the team challenged Coach to a deep dish pizza eating contest. Most of the team couldn’t get past two pieces. A couple of us made it to four, but with great effort and pain. We looked up and Coach was waiting for us. He had eaten six of eight pieces without batting an eye. He asked us, ‘Do you want me to finish?’ We said no and conceded defeat to his digestive might.”
• “If you do this right, your opponents will be looking for the bathroom!”


* Due to half a year of COVID troubles, the venue at which the event was to have taken place (and which had accepted a hefty advance payment) was forced to close its doors.
** There’s a link to one of these items in the first paragraph. Here’s a link to the other item, which is about how I taught Henry to drive before he learned English.
*** The presentation had been intended to take place at the scheduled March 28 gathering, but after its postponement, Henry’s copy of the book had been mailed to him. I waited till after he’d received it before publishing my two blog posts, so as not to risk somehow spoiling what had been intended as a surprise to him.

Mandy Patinkin (screen shot courtesy of Beth Merritt)

**** Among Henry’s other friends on the Zoom event was Mandy Patinkin, who played Iñigo Montoya in the movie Princess Bride. He had spent two months before the shooting of this film training hard with Henry for the fencing scenes. Yesterday, Patinkin spoke movingly about his training with Henry, and tied his thoughts during the filming of the key fencing scene to the loss of his father. It brought tears to many viewers’ eyes, including mine.

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