This article, written by Kristin Kleyn, was originally published in Pacific, March 2006.
Karl Avakian has seen FPU grow through the eyes of a student and a board member
Karl Avakian loves to tell stories. And a rich setting for some of his stories is Fresno Pacific University, the place he has seen grow and take on new shapes for nearly 50 years. From Pacific Bible Institute (PBI), where he was a student in the 1950's, to Fresno Pacific College and Fresno Pacific University, where he serves as a board member, Avakian sees patterns, and is excited.
Avakian speaks of everything with eagerness, and FPU is no exception. A minister, he can't resist slipping into a sermon.
"The school is an extension of Christ," he says. He believes that an an instrument responds to every delicate touch of the musician's fingers, so the university responds to God and extends His work to the world. Avakian talks of classmates who became missionaries in Armenia, or entered the medical field. "That's the way we're supposed to be," he says, shaking his index finger in a serious gesture. "Do not allow the world to squeeze you into its mold."
A strong framework of faith built from youth is how Avakian has resisted that mold. He grew up in Egypt in an Armenian family, where his grandfather was a lay minister. "He died when I was five years old," Avakian says. "And he had prayed that I would be a minister." Avakian accepted Christ at age 19, and committed his life to ministry a year later. After hearing about PBI from a former pastor, he traveled halfway across the world to Fresno to study Christian theology.
One vivid memory is the day he and friend Eddie Kalfayan first arrived at PBI. "September 22, 1957," Avakian says promptly and with a smile. "We had just come from Egypt the day before."
The PBI of Avakian's memory was made up of 80 students who met for classes in a brick building on Tuolumne Street in downtown Fresno. In 1957, Avakian walked three miles from his lodgings to his classes, played tennis for the institute in Roeding Park and sang in the school choir.
But it was the professors at PBI that made a lifetime impression on Avakian. "I was amazed at the willingness of the teachers to sacrifice," he says. "They were so committed. It was more than just a job for them--it was their life."
Names and faces stand out in his mind. Phyllis Martens spent extra time outside class helping Avakian over the hurdles of English pronunciation. History professor William Bass paid the fee for the choir tour Avakian couldn't afford. "They went beyond the call of duty," he says.
Avakian married his wife Nancy in 1963, and they have two children: Laura and David. After Avakian graduated from MB Biblical Seminary, he became the Christian education director at Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church in 1966. He received his ordination in 1979 and moved to New Jersey to be a full-time pastor. In 1988, Avakian was elected moderator of the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, serving 24 churches in the United States and Canada. He became conference minister for the Union in 1990 and held the post until 2004.
During the years of ministry, Avakian's contact with FPU did not fade. "When I became moderator, Gary Nachtigall (former athletic director and geography faculty) called and declared me alumnus of the year," he says. Avakian returned to Fresno, and joined FPU's board in 1990.
As a board member, Avakian adds to his history with the university. "I've been here 47 years and I've seen the changes," he says. And from his perspective, the good things he had as a student have endured. "It is a wonderful experience to be able to go to a school where you have outstanding teachers who care," he says. "I've seen that as a constant."
Pat Evans, executive pastor of New Harvest Church and FPU board member since 1991, believes that in addition to knowing the past, Avakian brings steadiness and laughter to the board. "He has a wonderful sense of humor," Evans says. "Sometimes you need to see the twinkle in his eyes to catch the dry wit. I think he's a wonderful, loving, caring man."
"I've come to know Karl as a very gracious individual," says Eugene Enns, FPU board member for 20 years and owner/partner of Enns Packing. "He has the right amount of persuasive ingenuity."
"Karl is a unique person in that he has this capacity to move in other groups without losing his identity," says Dalton Reimer, faculty emeritus and senior associate at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. Reimer has known Avakian during his PBI days. "He is an easy person to embrace because of who he is, his good cheer," Reimer says. "He's a transparent person."
"There is no guile in him," Evans says. "I'd like to play poker with him. He doesn't have a poker face."
One thing Avakian has greatly enjoyed as a board member is watching new buildings go up. He remembers the founding of Marpeck, McDonald Hall and East Hall. For the dedication of East Hall, the board climbed to the roof. "They asked me to pray," Avakian says, "and I suggested singing. We sang the Doxology on the top of East Hall."
As Avakian continues his stories of what he's seen at FPU, he settles into a still, solid excitement. "I'm so overwhelmed with joy at what we've built here," he says, learning forward in his chair, eyes twinkling behind glasses. "We've become stronger; we're a better people."
And Avakian knows, because he has been one of those people. "I have lived through the changes," he says. "That's quite the remarkable thing."