By Haig Chahinian
Courken George Deukmejian may be the most influential Armenian-American of the last century. Over his two terms as governor of California, he directed the spending of $316 billion. At the time he left office in 1991, his policies were affecting over 30 million Californians. He’s counted President Ronald Reagan as a friend and was a potential candidate to run as vice president on George H. W. Bush’s presidential ticket. But when asked about his accomplishments, the 87-year-old demurs. “Many more have acquired much greater wealth and have been more influential,” he says.
Modesty is in Deukmejian’s blood. His maternal grandfather worked as a traveling merchant in Erzurum (eastern Turkey) while his maternal grandmother tended to their home and children. Like many descendants of Genocide survivors, the former governor never met his grandparents nor knew their names. “I was curious about them, but I didn’t ask many questions,” he laments. Deukmejian’s father, Courken George Deukmejian Sr., an Oriental rug dealer from Aintab (now Gaziantep in southern Turkey) immigrated to the United States, where he married Deukmejian’s mother, Alice Gairdan Deukmejian. But details about Deukmejian’s family’s departure from historic Armenia remain murky. “There was never any full explanation,” the former governor says. His parents spoke little about the Armenian Genocide. “I recall them saying how it came on rather suddenly for them. And they made references to it from time to time. But they did not dwell on it. They did not give me a complete account.”
In contrast, the former official’s own life has been well documented. Born in Menands, New York, as a youth he developed an interest in current events. He’d devour the front page before reading the sports section. At age 27, he moved to the sunnier climes of the Golden State and married Gloria Saatjian. “The best decision I’ve ever made,” he says. The secret to their happy, 58-year-long marriage? “Two words,” he chuckles. “Yes, dear.”
His spate of electoral victories began soon after he moved west. He served as a State Assembly member, state senator and attorney general. As California’s chief executive, Deukmejian has been the most popular of modern time. According to one field poll, his approval rating never fell below 50 percent. His leadership made thousands of Armenian Californians proud.
Reflecting on what it means to be Armenian, he says: “I’m very pleased that I come from a Christian background and that my people as a whole have been very honorable. I’m glad my affiliation over the years has been with honorable and Christian people.”
The former governor’s words echo one of his oft-quoted statements. Referring to a golfer’s lie, meaning the ball’s location, he’d said: “The difference between golf and government is that in golf, you can't improve your lie.” He revisits the theme of honesty when pondering what he would like today’s Armenian youth to learn from his life. “I would say that it’s valuable to work hard, to get a good education, and to strive to do the best you can. And to be good citizens. Be honest and honorable.”