Vince Mendes, a writer in his own right for a home town newspaper in Georgia, where he now lives, frequently writes about Highlands and his family in Highlands as well as all the years he spent growing up here. But most of all, he talks about his beloved grandfather, Haik Kavookjian, the kind, very generous man who donated so much both to his Armenian Cathedral in New York as well as his beloved Highlands. Vinnie’s love and respect for Papa Kavookjian bears re-telling here:
Remembering Papa Kavookjian
by Vince Mendes
Growing up I did not have much contact with my grandfather as he moved from Highlands to Darien CT in 1947 when I was 5 years old. We would have family reunions three or four time a year but that was about it. Things changed when I joined the Navy and spent several years away from home with a lot of time on my hands, so I wrote a lot of letters to Papa (and everyone imaginable). We corresponded at least once a month and at 85 he was as sharp as any 50-year-old I knew.
In addition, my mother, Kathleen (The “Old Lady” or O/L), was quite proud of him and always had stories about his accomplishments. An earlier story I wrote for Lakeside News documents his escape from the Turks in the 1880’s.
When Papa first moved to Highlands there was no real post office, but only a mail room that was open 2 or 3 days a week and no mail delivery because the Post Office Dept did not think there was enough volume to justify it. To solve this dilemma, Papa would buy all the stamps for his business plus a bunch of his associates from the Highlands mail room, then take them to New York to make it look like there was more business here. He also put the arm on a bunch of his political friends so finally the Post Office Department decided to have a full-time post office and mail delivery. I have a letter dated 1926 from the US Senate signed by Overton Weller, telling Papa that they had acquired a building and the equipment would be moved in within the next 30 days.
He always had a bunch of high powered political friends and knew how to use them. During World War Two he was one of FDR’s “Dollar a Year” men. His photo engraving company made the printing plates for all the propaganda magazines that we distributed to South America. After the war he received a letter signed by Harry Truman regretting the termination of his employment and hoping that the loss of the income would not create a hardship.
He was instrumental in getting the new Highlands Sea Bright ”Million Dollar Bridge” built in the early 1930’s. He actually went to Washington when Herbert Hoover signed the bill appropriating the money to build the bridge and Hoover presented him with the pen he had used to sign the bill as a souvenir.
When OLPH built the new church in the 1930’s he was a large donor and one of the three windows behind the altar is dedicated to Mary Agnes McWilliams, my grandmother. (a window on the right-hand aisle was donated by Michael S Mendes, my grandfather on the other side)
He was a Founding Member of the Twin Lights Historical Association and helped found the Highlands First Aid Squad and later to construct the building at Fourth St and Valley St. (before that, the ambulance was just parked behind the Police Department.)
When it was decided to build Henry Hudson Regional school on top of the hill behind the Twin Lights, the owner of the property would not even return the school board’s phone calls, so the O/L got hold of Papa. It seems that years ago he used to play pinochle with the old fellow. He had his chauffeur drive him to Highlands from his home in Darien and the two of them had lunch. The upshot of that lunch was that the school board bought the land for one dollar!
Probably his most memorable achievement was the creation of Kavookjian Field. At the time there was no publicly owned, flat piece of land in town where kids could play baseball or football. Even the grammar school yard was sloped so if you missed catching a ball it would keep rolling on down Waterwitch Ave to the railroad tracks! In addition, there was no war memorial for WWII. (we had two memorials for WWI, one at the bridge and the other across from OLPH.)
He purchased the land and had to fight the residents of Monmouth Hills who complained that it would cause too much noise and traffic and create a nuisance. Even the people of Highlands complained that it was in Middletown and they did not want to pay taxes to Middletown Township! He struggled through all the objections and the field is still there as a living War memorial.
Papa died at age 101 in his office. He was a fund raiser for the Armenian Cathedral in New York and giving dictation to his secretary. He had a cigar in his hand and his arm slipped down to his lap. His secretary thought he had fallen asleep and removed the cigar then realized he was dead. He left each of his children $25,000, each of his grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren $5,000 and another $21 million to the Armenian Church! That was 1977 when $21,000,000 was real money! He was totally cognizant right up to the end and knew exactly what he was doing. What he gave us in in our genes, not a bank account! All I have to say is “Thank you, Papa.”