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.'"