About Tom Hairabedian

Written by Cary Hairabedian

Some things you may or may not know about my dad, Tom Hairabedian (written by Cary Hairabedian)

My Father passed away at age 96 on June 6, 2020.

Tom Hairabedian was the oldest of 3 boys born in Los Angeles, California in 1924 to an immigrant couple that escaped the World War 1 genocide in Armenia. His mother, Zepure Kahrimanian Harabedian barely escaped being murdered during the genocide in the part of Armenia that had been taken over by Turkey. The rest of her family did not. Her entire family still living in Turkey were killed, and her family’s thriving shipping business, assets, and home overlooking the Black Sea were taken by the Turks. She was immediately torn from wonderful well-to-do family life, and thrown into having nothing except the clothes she was wearing, and forced on the Armenian death march surrounded by Turkish soldiers. Her family and friends from her town on the death march were periodically killed or raped by soldiers in the night or died along the way. The few survivors eventually made it to a town in the mountains, and the soldiers eventually didn’t care about them any longer. They were the fortunate ones.

My grandmother was kidnapped at gunpoint in this town by a family, and forced to work for them – and then taken by another family to work for them. Eventually, because of her previous connection to a Christian School helping children, she was freed with the help of the American couple that ran the Christian school and received passage to the United States – an incredible story of survival. Tom’s father, Kuniaz Hairabedian was conscripted into the Russian Cossack Army during World War 1. Conscripted means, you can join our army, or we kill you. Your choice. This army was traveling around the countryside killing and pillaging. He did not want to follow army orders to kill innocent people. He was able to escape – and find his way to the United States. Tom’s father came to the U.S. through Ellis Island, as did his mother a few years later. They each made their way to Armenian communities in California; his father to Los Angeles and his mother made it to her older sister that had left Turkey before the Genocide for a California farming community near Fresno. In Los Angeles, Tom’s father was able to get the type of job usually available to a non-English speaking immigrant – the job others preferred not to do, and an occupation already adopted by previous immigrants from his background. In this case, picking up and hauling trash from businesses and homes. One weekend, he drove 5 hours from Los Angeles to Selma, California near Fresno to attend an Armenian event, where it was arranged he was to meet a potential wife there. He met my father’s mother Zepure. They got to know each other on Friday and Saturday; married on Sunday; and drove back to Los Angeles as a couple, so he could go back to work hauling trash on Monday. Over the next few years, they had 3 boys, of which Tom, my dad, was the oldest. When Tom was 8 years old in December of 1932, his father, the sole income earner for the family, was killed by a drunk driver as he was changing a tire on his trash truck – at the beginning of the Depression. 3 boys, Tom being the oldest at 8 years old, with an immigrant mother, Zepure left to take over the family trash hauling business.

Devastating for a woman that had already lived through so much misery. And that was Tom’s start in life. 8 years old, no father, a poor immigrant mother, and two younger brothers. There were no welfare, food stamps, section 8 housing, free school lunches, or free healthcare. Just their family and immigrant relatives nearby. They had to figure it out, and they did. Spoiler Alert: Zepure got her one wish. She always hoped she’d raised her children in the right way – and she did. All 3 boys achieved greater success than she could have ever imagined. And all 3 were loved and adored by their family and friends. They lived in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. This is an area of town separated into street gangs by different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. You had to be pretty tough to get around that area. My dad told me about the time he walked around a corner and was immediately circled by a gang. The leader sized him up and pushed a boy about his size into the circle. Tom had to fight this boy, and he won, but they didn’t let him go. Then they pushed in a bigger boy. Tom fought him and won again. Still, they didn’t let him go. Then they sent two boys into the circle. At this point, Tom was tired and finally lost the fight. Then he was allowed to go home. That’s just the way it was. Another time, he worked hard and earned a nickel for an afternoon’s work. He went down to the local shop and bought a 5 cent candy bar. When he stepped out of the store, the other kids that saw him go in yelled “Bites”! that meant if he didn’t give them each a bite, they would tackle him and take the candy bar. He quickly pulled off the wrapper and licked the candy bar all over, then held it out to the other kids. They walked away in disgust, and he got to eat his whole hard-earned candy bar. Remember, this was the Depression. No one had much, especially in a ghetto area of Los Angeles, and a 5 cent candy bar was special for a kid. If you know my dad, he never complained that he didn’t get a fair start in life. He was always happy and saw the bright side of things. He never considered himself poor, or a victim. He just happily accepted where he was at, and looked forward to making the very best of it. He always had gratitude for the opportunity. This poor little boy born to immigrant parents, with his father being killed when he was the oldest child in his family at just 8 years of age, always saw the boundless opportunity. If you were to ask him, he was having a great time.

Before he died, Tom’s father introduced him to swimming. On a Sunday, they washed out the trash truck and loaded the boys in the back. They drove from Los Angeles to Lake Elsinore. The boys were Ara 4, Deron 6, and Tom was 7. His dad took a tire inner tube, twisted it into a figure 8, and shoved it down over Tom’s head, then threw him into the lake. He paddled around for a while with other kids. After about an hour, he took Tom out of the water, took off the innertube, and shoved it down over Deron, and threw him into the water. Then he picked up Tom and threw him back into the water without the innertube. He had an hour with the innertube, now it was time to sink or swim. Well, it worked, and it was swim – for the next 85 years.

In high school, he joined the gymnastics team and was pretty good. He also enjoyed competitive swimming and diving. He was a pretty good athlete in any sport he tried. One time after school he saw kids on the track team working on pole-vaulting. He watched them and figured out the body mechanics. He asked to try, and they handed him the pole. In a jacket and school shoes, he ran down the runway, planted the pole, and cleared the height they were attempting on his first try. Later when he was in his twenties, the golf pro at a golf course offered to teach him how to play golf. They went out to the first hole (a par 3) and stepped onto the tee box. The golf teacher hit the ball toward the hole, to show Tom how to swing the club. Then Tom stepped up and hit his golf ball. They walked to the green and quickly found the teacher’s ball, but they couldn’t find Tom’s. Then the teacher walked over to the cup and said, hey Tom, you made a hole in one. Tom said, hey, this game is pretty easy. Of course, it isn’t; but that was pretty good to figure out a golf swing and get a hole-in-one on your first try. He was just good at figuring out body mechanics, which is probably why he was such a good diver. He wasn’t just a good athlete. He was also musically talented. He learned to play the violin when he was a young boy and took lessons from a teacher that was so impressed with his ability, he would bring the violin for each lesson by taking the bus across town to Tom’s house. Unfortunately, the teacher was killed in a bus accident, and that was the end of the violin lessons – and the violin he brought for each lesson. Tom was introduced to Harmonica music and became fascinated with playing the harmonica. In the middle of the Depression, he saved his nickels from doing odd jobs to purchase a harmonica he saw in the cabinet of a local shop. It was 40 cents. When he had enough saved, he went into the shop to buy the harmonica. The store owner told him the price was now 45 cents, and Tom was short a nickel. The store owner could see how disappointed he was, and as the little boy was walking out of the shop, the store owner said wait a minute and sold him the harmonica for 40 cents. On the walk home, Tom taught himself his first entire song. Of course, we all know how good he got on the harmonica, and he was self-taught. He got so good, he was invited to try out for the Harmonicats, a musical group that became popular in the early ’50s while dad was at USC. He chose to pass and instead chose a career as a teacher and coach in physical education.

After high school, he did what every kid was doing in 1942, enlisting in the armed service to fight for his country. It was that, or be drafted. The benefit of enlisting was an opportunity to choose the service you wanted. He really wanted to be in the Air Force and loved the idea of flying planes. When he got to the enlistment office, he was told they filled their quota for the Air Force, and suggested the Navy, stating there were planes in the Navy too. He got in that line, and just before he got to the end, a Sargent said that’s it, this is the last man we are taking. Go join the army. As my dad lingered there disappointed with his poor timing, he and 3 other boys started down the hall to the Army. He heard the last boy chosen smart-off to the Navy Sargent, and the Sargent turned and called down the hall, this guy isn’t Navy material, who wants to join the Navy? My dad immediately raised his hand and said, I do, and ran down the hall, and into the Navy. He had a great time in the Navy serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific theatre. As each of his two brothers graduated high school, they also followed him into the Service; the middle boy, Deron joining the Navy, and the youngest, Ara joining the Army Special Amphibious Operations. No, they never let Tom fly the planes, but later in life, he earned his pilot’s license and realized his dream to fly.

After World War 2, Tom was able to go to college at USC, the school down the road from where he lived – courtesy of the GI Bill. At USC, he joined the gymnastics team and swim team. He became one of the strongest trampoline competitors on the west coast and a world-class diving champion. He graduated USC, and then went on to Phoenix Arizona for his Masters at Arizona State University where he taught and coached high school sports. After meeting his wife, Susan on a blind date in Arizona, he married and found a college teaching and coaching job in Warrensburg Missouri – that paid a whopping $6,000 per year – for a teacher with a Master’s Degree. His mother was mortified. She said in her Armenian accent, “Where is this Misery you are going too?” Tom said, “It’s Missouri mom, not, misery!. In 1961, Tom packed up two kids, 2 & 4, and moved to Missouri. He was excited to be there.

He built the CMSC gymnastics team from scratch; and the swimming and diving team to perennial conference champions. He also took a couple of years away from CMSC to coach the Missouri University Swimming and Diving Team; and earn his Doctorate at MU in Columbia, Missouri. MU asked him to stay and coach there, but he chose to go back and honor his commitment to CMSC in Warrensburg.

I think my dad, Tom would have been a pretty cool friend to have growing up. I am sure he was a great example to his friends and brothers. He was always curious, loved learning, and wanted to master whatever he took on. Just a few more items you may not have known about Tom Hairabedian: When he met my mother, he briefly performed a trampoline act in the circus – which was very troubling to my grandmother. She couldn’t imagine her daughter married to a circus performer. Also, my dad was in two Hollywood movies as a tumbling cheerleader in football games in the movie. One of the movies was “Saturday’s Hero” with John Derek and Donna Reed. My dad also competed in swing dancing competitions for extra money in college. He admired Gene Kelly, because of the athleticism he included in his dancing. If he didn’t go into teaching and physical education, who knows. Maybe he would have been a musician, or maybe an actor or dancer in the movies. He certainly loved to entertain, and was always comfortable with an audience. He was musically and physically talented, smart, funny at speaking engagements with good comedic timing, spiritual, hardworking, giving, helpful to others, and above all, happy.

He was pretty good with construction projects around the house. He added a long concrete sidewalk down a hillside and around the back of our house. He installed a large above ground pool in the backyard including leveling and compacting the soil. The pool was to teach swim lessons to 50 kids each year to earn extra money for the family. He built out our basement to rooms. And he designed and built a trailer to carry his trampoline to travel to perform trampoline and diving shows. He did those things himself, well, because frankly, we just didn’t have the money to hire professionals; but also because he enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity to learn something new. He was a pretty smart guy and loved figuring things out. There was no internet in those days. You would just go down to the local hardware store and lumberyard, ask a few questions, and figure it out. He always seemed to be in motion – like the ever-ready bunny. My dad, the son of immigrant parents, who lost his father at age 8 when he was the oldest of 3 boys, never saw an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome. Obstacles were just opportunities to learn something new. He served his county during WW2; earned a college degree from USC, then a Masters at Arizona State, and a Doctorate at Missouri University – but he was happy if people just called him coach. The two things he enjoyed most were diving and coaching. Speaking of coaching, when I was 5 years old, my dad bought me a bike and said he was going to teach me to ride it. I told him I didn’t think I could do it and wanted training wheels. He assured me I didn’t need training wheels and he would be right there holding the bike while I rode it. And as he promised, he helped me balance the bike by holding the seat and running beside me while I peddled. He was talking and telling me how to adjust and encouraging me that I was doing fine. The next day we went out to practice again. And again, my dad held the back of the bike seat running beside me. I was talking and telling him I thought I was figuring it out. I glanced behind me, and I noticed he wasn’t running beside me anymore. As I looked back, I saw dad smiling and waving in the distance as I rode that bike on my own. And today reminds me of that time. Looking back, and there’s dad, smiling and waving…

Cary Hairabedian (Tom’s oldest son, CA)

Tom Hairabedian with 3 of his children 1966, From left to right: Carron, David and Cary
Daughter Carron, Youngest son David, Oldest son Cary – not pictured: Oldest

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