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Off Deadline: In art as in politics, one person can make things happen

A reminder of what it takes to make good things happen in a community

First off, a confession: As a kid, I was determined to become a sketch artist and spent many hours with pencil and pen attempting to put together reasonable-looking horses, cats, trees, cars, landscapes.

I never made it to people or faces.

By high school, I found that sketching with words provided a broader palette, so to speak, and found my way onto the student paper -- and occasionally Principal Fred Canrinus' office.

But if there had been an Art Center in Los Gatos, who knows?

On a recent Sunday, I attended the 45th anniversary celebratory "tea" for the Palo Alto Art Center, at Newell and Embarcadero roads. The building once was Palo Alto City Hall from the fast-growth 1950s through the 1960s, when most city offices moved to the high-rise Civic Center in downtown Palo Alto.

As a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, I spent several late-1960s years attending City Council and other meetings in what is now the large multi-use community room, once almost witnessing a fistfight between two council members. I reported on what was initially a civic dilemma as to what to do with the sprawling facility, across a narrow parking lot from what was formerly the Main Library.

Later, I moderated council candidates' forums there and circa 1980-81 convened Council for the Arts, Palo Alto (CAPA) board meetings in a side room. The Art Center provided places to hold events and meetings in a busy community starved for such spaces.

But Sunday's event became not only a visit to past recollections but also a reminder of what it takes to make good things happen in a community, to "build community" as the old phrase puts it.

In this case, what it took was a woman with vision and motivation and the ability to assemble allies, form a group and push forward. That woman in the late 1960s was Lorraine "Queene" (pronounced "queenie") Amirian, whose remarkable life led her from ravaged post-World War I Armenia to Palo Alto by way of Boston and Washington, D.C.

Queene wasn't a nickname. It was a misunderstanding by immigration officials of her given first name from Armenia: Takoohy, according to her daughter, Lorraine Amirian Parker, speaking to a rapt audience of nearly 150 persons.

She said her parents came to the United States in the early 1920s, "survivors of the 1915 genocide of the Armenians carried out by the Turks."

Queene and her later husband, Lemyel Thomas Amirian, embarked on the American dream: "Both of my parents worked hard, holding jobs all through public school and college, and doing well in their studies," Lorraine recounted.

"My father enrolled in the architecture program at MIT, and my mother studied history at Boston University, after which she moved to Washington, D.C., where she earned her master's degree in international law at American University."

Returning to Boston, Queene became assistant editor for the English-language Armenian newspaper, The Hairenik Weekly.

Her parents met as undergraduates, when they performed in an Armenian-student play, with Lemyel playing the part of Queene's father. He would escort her home on the bus after rehearsals. They were married in 1939 after she returned to Boston.

During World War II, Lemyel served with the U.S. Navy Department and was transferred to San Francisco.

"My father said they were determined to live in a university town, so the choice was between Palo Alto and Berkeley," Lorraine explained. "He said that one day, while driving around Palo Alto, he came to an intersection without a stop sign. To his left, another car arrived at the intersection at the same moment, and the other driver motioned for him to go ahead.

"He said that wave made his decision: If people were so polite in Palo Alto, that's where he wanted to live, and my mother agreed," she said.

They bought a still-under-construction house. Once settled in, "my mother became the consummate volunteer. Her many activities, almost always in a leadership role, included working with the PTA, the Girl Scouts, the AAUW (American Association of University Women), city politics, the establishment of the Senior Center (now Avenidas), the United States Bicentennial commemoration, finding a permanent home in the Bay Area for the American Conservatory Theatre ... and what we are celebrating today, the establishment of what is now called the Palo Alto Art Center," Lorraine said.

Queene and another remarkable Palo Altan, the late Carol Bernhardt, were pivotal in the creation of the senior center when in the late 1960s they were commissioned to do a "senior needs" survey. The survey showed that most seniors had been local residents for more than a quarter-century. The survey allayed fears of some City Council members that creating a center would be a magnet for needy seniors from all over the bay region and beyond.

Queene was honored for her volunteer work "in making Palo Alto what it is today" and is named on a plaque mounted on what used to be the University Art building in downtown Palo Alto.

When the city offices vacated the building, "my mother and a few others formed a committee to discuss the possibility of converting the building into a center for the appreciation and practice of the arts." The committee's weekly meetings were "a combination of working meeting, fellowship and laughter, over food and a glass of wine," Lorraine recalled.

"The goal was achieved, and this center became a gathering place for the community, with galleries and art activities for adults and children. Members of the original committee became lifelong friends, and, over the years, many of them became regulars at my parents' table," she said.

"So here is an example of the best of what this country promises. Coming here as refugees, people can become part of what to much of the world is The American Dream. My parents loved Palo Alto. In fact, when my mother died in 1988, my father had the following carved on their headstone: 'Our rainbow ended in Palo Alto.'"

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

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Posted by Last of the baby boom
a resident of Community Center
on May 14, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Thank you Jay for your sharing using your art talent and thank you Queene for giving your heart to our community. Also, thank you for sharing the power of one gracious gesture -- waving someone on at an intersection.


Like this comment
Posted by another boomer
a resident of Midtown
on May 14, 2016 at 8:12 pm

Nice bit of history, Jay, thanks!

But tell us more about those trips to Principal Fred Canrinus' office...
;-)


3 people like this
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
a resident of another community
on May 15, 2016 at 9:52 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Ah, Fred and I developed into friends. It seems I had vowed to myself that I would never write a "keep your campus clean" type namby-pamby editorial, but would always push for a viewpoint, maybe a sharp one -- and we would do follow-up discussions. One editorial followed the suicide of a classmate after she had been rejected for a part in the senior play -- my first teen-suicide story of at least a couple dozen since. We had added up all the costs of students productions and compared it to how few students actually ever got on stage. The editorial as I recall said there should be a stronger effort made to involve more students, not just those from a clique of teacher's pets -- a similar problem with school sports. I was backed by a terrific journalism teacher, Elizabeth Girdler. In college I delivered raw milk to Fred's home in a 3-9 a.m. milk route for the Claravale Guernsey Farm. A quarter century or so later a woman approached me at a Palo Alto Senior Center reception and said I didn't know her but her unmarried name was Canrinus. "You're Fred's daughter?!" I asked, surprised. Yes, and she said he remembered me well, as I did him. Good principal!


Like this comment
Posted by Arts for All
a resident of Downtown North
on May 16, 2016 at 1:35 pm

I love the Palo Alto Art Center! I only wish the Art Center and the City of Palo Alto would establish a 100% income based scholarship for aspiring young artists. Not all youngsters here are science or engineer material. The 50% reduction currently available for students is not enough to serve, nurture or mentor Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. This should include camps as well.


Like this comment
Posted by Dena Mossar
a resident of Professorville
on May 16, 2016 at 5:52 pm

Thanks for the history!!!!!


Like this comment
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2016 at 9:09 pm

Jay,

Thanks for this excellent column! I am one of the many people who benefitted by being in Queene's "aura." She was president of AAUW when I joined in the early '60s, and she always said, "You need to be involved in the community!" Her vision, wisdom, foresight and dedication are unequalled, and she is why I do what I do today!


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