Today i'd like to take just a moment to share some thoughts on the passing this week of one of my closest friends and mentors, my father in law, Varkis Ovian. He passed away last Sunday, on my birthday ironically, just three days after celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary with my mother in law, and he was in great health and spirits right up until the evening of his death, at which time he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died later that day at the age of 80.
The reason I'd like to share a bit about him is because much of what i've accomplished personally and professionally is a direct result of the guidance and support he gave me over the years. In an era where people now tend to marry and have children later in life, and one where you don't have a lot of time to spend with your extended family, I was very fortunate to have known my father in law since I was 15 years old. My own father had died just three years earlier and over the next 35 years Varkis was both my surrogate father and professional mentor.
As you can read from his online obituary, which you can access by clicking here, he was a real original, having dropped out of school at 15 to go to work and support his family during the depression, eventually joining the Navy in WW II and then starting a highly successful and exclusive hair salon back in Worcester, MA at a time when that city was a major retail and industrial center. He was a first generation Armenian in a family of six children, who was incredibly proud of his heritage and he was as tough a guy as I ever knew. All you had to see was that nose, which bore the scars of a lot of fights over the years, to appreciate the battles he fought on a personal level to raise himself and his family above the level they lived at in the little mill town they grew up in. If someone was treating his family, his friends or someone in the community unfairly, they eventually had to deal with Varkis and trust me, you didn't want to be on the wrong side of him. He was, despite his lack of formal education, one of the most shrewd and highly intelligent men I ever knew, and he had ability to spot a phony or a bully almost instantly and he had no tolerance for either.
He loved underdogs, both in betting and in life, and he hated any type of racial or religious discrimination. He proudly refused to ever join any organization or club that discriminated in any fashion, and his sense of humor and fair play was only equaled by his competitive desire to win at any thing he tried. He was a great gambler and card player, skills I obviously never gained, as well as a superb negotiator and judge of people. Much of the ability I have in negotiations and dealing with people I learned from him, although I am a poor second to him in those areas as well. He had natural gifts you don't learn in college or business school.
However, the primary lesson I learned from him over the years, and which I have tried to permanently build in to the DNA of my firm Wahlstrom & Associates and my other business ventures was that people, family and relationships matter more then money or achievement. He was most proud of the fact that I chose to turn my back on the financial stability and prosperity of working for the insurance companies, and instead devoted my practice at great financial cost to assisting trial lawyers and injured people to know what to do with their hard won money. As someone who had to learn to speak English as a second language, who saw his family and friends often taken advantage of by lawyers, insurance companies and financial con men, and who experienced first hand the anxiety of being disabled in his middle years and needing honest, competent advice on conserving his money and caring for his family, he would always say, " Doesn't it feel good to know that every day you are helping people who really need it instead of some rotten insurance company?"
Well Varkis, it felt good then, and despite the continued financial struggles of working this side of the business and growing a practice after all these years, it still feels good. The lessons and examples you provided in how to deal with people, how to raise a family, and specifically how to protect those who need protection will stay with me and my son's and be a foundational principal in how we proceed at all times. While others certainly are entitled to do the pragmatic thing and work for faceless insurance companies in order to put more money in some corporate bank account, my family and my companies will continue to represent and assist those who need an honest and passionate protector, like my father in law was in his life, and for his example and the lessons he shared with me, I will be eternally grateful.