Louise Nalbandian: Pioneer of Armenian Studies at Fresno State

By Dickran Kouymjian
Haig & Isabel Berberian Endowed Professor of Armenian Studies


A quarter of century has passed since the tragic death of Dr. Louise Nalbandian, Professor in the History Department of CSU Fresno from 1964 to 1974. She was the first to teach an Armenian course starting in the spring semester 1967 with a new class History 133, "Armenian History." She offered the course every semester she was on campus. In the fall of 1969 Louise Nalbandian instituted another course of interest to Armenia and Middle East entitled the "Ancient Fertile Crescent." Later in the spring of 1972 and again in 1974 she twice taught "Soviet Armenia" in the History Department.

Dr. Nalbandian was from San Francisco, where she grew up with her brothers Al and Harvey. She completed her doctorate at Stanford University and wrote her thesis on Armenian political parties. This was later published by the University of California Press under the title the Armenian Revolutionary Movement: The Development of Armenian Political Parties through the Nineteenth Century (1963); it was must reading for anyone interested in 19th and early 20th century Armenian political history. The first woman hired in the male bastion of history at Fresno State, she gradually developed offerings in her main field of interest.

Due to the surge in interest in ethnic studies, and perhaps in part to the university’s accepting to offer an Ethnic Studies Program after wide spread unrest on campus, including the bombing of the computer center, Louise Nalbandian was able to push for more Armenian content courses. By 1970 she had managed to recruit two new teachers, Serpouhie Messerlian, as Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages to teach Armenian, and Dr. Arra Avakian, Professor of Ethnic Studies to teach Armenian culture.

By 1972 a minor in Armenian Language was offered through the Department of Foreign Languages and a number of courses were included in the General Education Program. The 1973-4 and the 1974-5 university catalogues list her as Coordinator of Armenian Studies. The continued growth of the Program was dramatically halted by Dr. Nalbandian’s death in a highway accident. In the spring of 1975 her previously scheduled courses were cancelled. Dr. Avakian had already left the university, but Ms. Messerlian continued to teach Armenian 1A until the University hired me in the 1977 after a two year search.

When I arrived to reestablish an Armenian Studies Program, no courses except elementary Armenian had been taught for more than two academic years. Though there was technically a minor in Armenian language, neither Armenian 2A nor Armenian 2B, both requirements for the minor, had ever been listed as offerings in the schedule of courses. I am not sure if anyone actually earned a minor in those years. Unfortunately, those courses which had been previously listed under General Education were dropped after Dr. Nalbandian’s death, and even the many Armenian courses in Ethnic Studies disappeared after Arra Avakian left in 1974.

My charge was to establish a new Armenian Studies Program. In the first years I taught Armenian language, history, and art and architecture. As an historian my interests and publications were in medieval and ancient Armenian Studies, rather than the modern period. One of the first steps I took to revive the program was to expand history into a two semester course (I wanted four semesters, but there were limits), the first covering ancient and medieval period and the second the history of Armenian from the Cilician kingdom to the Genocide of 1915. I also immediately developed a new course, AS 10, Introduction to Armenian Studies, which covered language and linguistics, history, genocide studies, Armenians in America, literature, art, and architecture. It was the first Armenian Studies course to get into the newly revised General Education program and remains the fundamental initiation to Armenian Studies for our students.

The subsequent history of Fresno’s Armenian Studies Program is much clearer and after 1979 available for anyone to study through the pages of 21 years of Hye Sharzhoom. What has changed during the past two decades is the consistent number of students completing minors in Armenian Studies, the vast outreach program of public lectures and conferences, the increase in overall enrollment, the availability of large numbers of scholarships and grants for student enrolled in Armenian Studies, and, perhaps most important, the establishment of several major endowments. Because of these endowments — the Haig & Isabel Berberian Endowed Chair of Armenian Studies, which I currently hold, the Henry S. Khanzadian Kazan Endowed Visiting Professor of Armenian Studies, the Victoria Kazan General Endowment for Armenian Studies, and the Pete Peters scholarship and program endowment –- the Program is stabilized and will continue automatically when I retire.

After Louise Nalbandian passed away, a spontaneous movement was engaged to create a lasting memorial in her name. Spearheaded by Dr. Joseph Satin, then Dean of Arts and Humanities, and loyal friends of Dr. Nalbandian like the late Professor Ara Dolarian and his wife Rose, a project to erect a Louise Nalbandian Memorial Museum was undertaken. Her brother Al Nalbandian offered to give his multimillion-dollar collection of art to the University if such a facility was built on the CSUF campus in his sister’s memory. A site was chosen at Maple and Shaw just a bit southwest from where the new Smittcamp Alumni Building has been built. The Nalbandian Museum was to be part of an "Heritage Park," which would accommodate museums and other facilities representing Fresno’s major minority populations. Drawings and renderings were completed by a San Francisco architect and the project was approved by the Board of Trustee and placed on the University’s masterplan.

When I was recruited from Paris in 1976, I was given copies of the plans of the impressive building and told that if I accepted to come to Fresno State, I would have as one of my duties the directorship of the museum. I was also assured that groundbreaking would take place in the summer of 1977. Unfortunately, the project never materialized. Though I headed a support committee to raise funds for more than five years, the idea was much ahead of its time and represented a fund drive of several million dollars.

A form of the project was revived twice. Dean Satin, a couple of years before his retirement in the 1980s, acquired the rights to an Arts and Humanities complex designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but never executed. It was to include an Armenian museum, but again the multimillion-dollar project was never realized. Most recently proposals have been made for a Center for Armenian Studies and Museum in the new Save Mart Event Center and a major out of state Armenian donor had offered to making a gift of $400,000 for such a facility, if it were matched by the local community. However, that too fell by the wayside because of a serious misunderstanding.

Thirty-three years have passed since Prof. Nalbandian taught the first Armenian history course on campus. Even I have been ignorant of some of the facts presented above and from time to time have forgotten her vital role. My wife and I last met Louise Nalbandian in Beirut in 1972. She was on a sabbatical leave collecting material for a forthcoming book on Maro (Mariam Vardanian), the famous Hunchak revolutionary leader. Over dinner at our house, she explained many of the trials and tribulations she was suffering with Armenian Studies at Fresno State. Our only connection with Fresno was the writings of William Saroyan and as we accompanied her back to her hotel in the early morning, we could not have imagined for a moment that we too one day would be involved in Armenian Studies in California.

A very nice photograph-portrait of Dr. Louise Nalbandian hung for years on the wall outside the History Department in the Social Sciences Building on our campus. I hope many of you who remember Louise had seen it, if not, we have reproduced it for this article.