Thursday, September 20, 2007

Vartkes Barsam: IN HIS OWN WORDS

Last year, Vartkes Barsam, age 80, founder and chairman of Datatech Electronics Corporation of Houston, Texas, passed away in Los Angeles on Saturday, September 16, 2006, following a courageous battle with cancer.

Vartkes Barsam received his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wyoming in 1949 and spent the next thirty years working in the defense industry on highly classified programs, then turned to developing shopping centers and founding the Datatech Corporation.

In 1988, Vartkes Barsam visited Armenia with the group of Armenian Engineers and Scientists of America, to identify assistance priority needs in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that year. He soon became actively involved in several activities. He established a fiberoptics program at Armenia's Polytechnic University, and accepted the treasurer position at the American University of Armenia. He was known to be a "doer" who always followed his altruistic ideas with solid actions; his extensive, active involvement with the Eyecare Project of Armenia was evidence of this. Vartkes also supported youth development through numerous pro-education ventures, as demonstrated by his sponsorship of a new elementary school in Karabagh.

Vartkes served on many Armenian community boards, including the parish council of the St. James Armenian Church, the Diocesan Council of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, the Armenian Professional Society, and several other organizations.
Vartkes Barsam helped establish many essential components that would sustain Armenia's growth and development, including the American University of Armenia, the telecommunications infrastructure, a western business hotel to attract investment, and diplomatic interventions with all levels of government and the global business communities.

The following are transcripts from audio recorded testimonials of Vartkes Barsam, which represent a small portion of an oral history of his life and contributions to the Armenian Nation.


(Voice file)

I am an engineer. I got a couple of degrees in engineering. But in ’79 I quit, and my wife flipped. I said this engineering is too stupid: they’re not making any money. I’m not gonna do it. “What are we gonna do?” I said I’ll build something start building. I’ve never built a building before. I built a shopping center in Hisperia. You know, about 26 stores and I got a group together, I didn’t have the money. We did it. And one year I was making the same money I was making working for Hughes Aircraft then. And this way in ’82 I had to wait three years because of my security clearance before I could leave the country.

I went to Armenia. I just bought two things. Built my hotel. I was building a school up in Stepanavan. For the Diocese. That was a big school. And I was helping the AUA because that building had no heat, no electricity. I spent a year. Doing that, working on that place and building a heating system for that place, getting the power, diesel motor with generator enough for 175 kilowatt to power, to do everything. And because the place went through the… it froze the building, the pipes, the heating, you know, they got those hot water… Radiators, sections. I went and bought all the sections I could get a hold of, a whole bunch of them. We got some workers who started taking them apart. First floor. And it was a hassle, that took ’em so much time because you gotta take it apart, gotta take it apart, the ones you could see, put it together, fill it up with water… If it leaks, they mark them, they’re gonna drain it out , they got it ok. Now we bring the water up to the second level. Got through the same routine ???? but it’s slower now because you’ve got twice much water. And you get up to the fourth storey, now you got so much pressure on the first floor, leaks that weren’t visible suddenly become visible. You’re looking for wet spots where the pipes go one floor to the other. They’re buried in the wall a little bit… And they start leaking through. And er… We, like, found two boilers. We put the two-storeys tanks. One with mazut to burn… And in its grounds I found a generator that used 175 kilowatts but it was a noisy thing. But, you know, the building we had could get electricity in two different systems. At times, neither one had electricity. I remember it was, I worked all year part-time, I was going all over the place. And um, it was December 8, I said ok, turn on the hot water ’cause we’d been working with cold water. Hot water got steam pressure up, everything was fine and I tore out to the airport (chuckles). Nobody wanted to go home. No heat, they said we’re gonna stay here tonight. You guys do what you want, I’m out. But, you know, there was… inside there’s the columns with marble facings, it fell off and cracked and loosened up, trying to match ’em, you know, that’s all fixed now it was a mess. And I got some clear tape and taped the loose ones, so we could figure out what to do. I didn’t stop because I said we got to get these other things fixed. You can only…

I had to put a money system in. There was no money system. They made me treasurer. So, I said: “Well, where do I get the money?” The Minister of Education, Higher Education is supposed to give us money. So, I had to open an account. Across the university there was a small bank. I went over there and opened up an account. I says: “Ok, here’s the account, here’s the, that, go downtown to one of the students and tell them, you know, I’m here now and I wanted to transfer, I don’t know, 18-20,000 rubles at that time because I had no money, and the people were used to getting paid everyday or every week. And everyday I’m sending the guy over there. Is the money transferred? A week goes by, the people are getting all upset because they lived hand to mouth. So finally it came close to the second week, and the guy says, the money’s been transferred. I says, great, and let me just go get it. I go over there, I say I want this money. “Where do we transfer it? What’s their account number?” I said they don’t have accounts. Poor people. She opens up the drawer and says that’s all the cash we have. Nothing! Everything was by transfer. I said these are poor people. And I thought to myself, Jesus, this isn’t gonna work at all. So, I went and bought two big safes. One I put U.S., the other one dram that was rubles then, actually. Because we didn’t have the dram. So, I got, you know, like, 20,000 dollars worth of American dollars, put it in here. And I says, when you take 5,000 here, you convert, put down the conversion factor so we can balance these things out. Then I could pay the workers. That’s what we did. Just get rid of cleaning women, there were eight cleaning women. I was gonna cut down, and they were gonna strike on me. This was quite an experience.

I was going all over the place, you know. I was up in Stepanavan building a school, helping AUA, trying to get the hotel started (chuckles). Who authorized you? What are you doing? You know, I did a lot of things that I felt very good about. I did so many things, we didn’t even thought to write.


(Voice File)

You know, like, I brought the phone system here, to Armenia. I was there and I wanted to start a joint venture with the Chamber of Commerce. First, that was my first concept. Ashot Sargisyan. He turned out to be a real crook, too. They blasted his head off.

But I don’t know, I started there, and I couldn’t call! Getting on to 10 o’clock here which is 10 o’clock…

Yeah, I brought AT&T over. Um, you know, well, it’s two years and uh, I go over there on my second trip, and I says how many… I can’t do any work here.

So, I wanted to meet the Minister of Communications, Robert Davoyan. So, he is in this 10-storey building there, the telephone building. You know, they wanted to show me their stupid old switch relays. I go relays? I says what the hell is this? In this day and age.

I go up and er… Minister Davoyan, how are you, bla bla bla, I’m Vartkes Barsam, you know. I’m nobody. And I said, why can’t we get phones? He says, well, we’re trying, he says, Louise Simon’s got someone from Lebanon who’s been making a study. I says, well, what’s happened with it? He says I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet. I said, well, I got Lousie’s home phone number cause it was nighttime here, it was about 10 o’clock there and must have been about, in the morning, it was about 6-7 ’cause it’s 7-hours difference or 8 hours. 9 hours. And I says, you could get her ’cause he could switch around ’cause everything went through Moscow.

Well, he gives me the phone. Louise yea, this is Vartkes. I said I understand you’re doing something with the phone system here. What are you doing? She says, well, I got a man making a study but I haven’t gotten a copy of it, so, I have, you know, I can’t see anything right now. I said, ok, when do you expect something? She says I don’t know, any day now.

So, I’m on my way back at that time we had to fly through Moscow and land in New York because of Customs. And it was 4-5 hours, so I called her again at home. Louise, I’m in New York I want to find out anything more happened? And she says, now, she says, I just had an argument with Hrayr Hovnanian he told me that Armenian Assembly is gonna handle this thing and for me to keep my nose out of it.

Well, Hrayr was down in Florida, he’s got a place down there. I had that phone number. I called him, Hrayr, this is Vartkes Barsam, I says, what are you doing on this phone thing? He says I don’t know. He says, I got this group investigating, we talked to AT&T, they’re too expensive. And we tried to set up some kind of a meeting with the… umm, what’s the other phone company? Nextel.

So I thought Jesus, this is getting nowhere. So, I called Davoyan up. I said I need you to come over here. I need you to get permission from Moscow because he reported to Moscow then - we hadn’t separated - and that you can sign a contract. But I don’t know what you’re gonna sign, but you know, there’s something. So, he said ok. I says ok, fly here to Los Angeles and I’ll see what I can do.

So, then I got a phone call from somebody from AT&T and they said they’ve gotten a call; somebody from Moscow was coming. And… when they… this was in New York. They have overseas branch and then domestic branch. This is overseas branch. And, so, this guy was trying to find out something about Armenia 'cause he doesn't know anything, he gives a dog and pony show to them. So, he looks up the AGBU, the first thing he sees.

So, he calls up, gets hold of Louise. He says, you know, minister’s coming over, he says, you know, who is he, what is he? She says, I don't know anything this, but I think I know who does. She gave him my number.

So, he calls me up. And I says, well, I've got this minister coming. I said I'd like to know what do you do with a man when he comes like this, how do we get a meeting set up. He says, well, we show him how we do the electronics switching, how it's suspended from the ceiling for earthquake and all these things. I says, so, it's a dog and pony show. I said, I don't need that. I says, is there anybody that's Armenian there? He says, well, what's an Armenian name? I says, it ends in "ian". He says, well, there was a ----Mariam Megegochian----- She’s working with Japan now. I says, can you give me her extension number? So he did. And I called her up. Mariam, my name is Vartkes Parsam, bla, bla, bla, I'm trying to do something. She says when the earthquake occurred I tried to volunteer, but nobody would talk to me. I says, well, that’s all right, Mary, we can’t, you know, worry about all the confusion that occurred then.

And I says, well, I need some help. She says, well, I'm working with Japan now. I says, well, I need some help; I don't want the man come and have the dog and pony show. She says, what do you want me to do? I says, I want you to get the information on the number of hits; people are trying to call. This gets registered. You know, there's ten thousand hits and two hundred calls. Look at the difference there’s a big demand. I says, I need that data. I says, can you get it for me? I says, also, I said, the minister’s are gonna come here, I wanna send them to Washington, and there's a Nextel meeting. From there I want them to... if I can get them to put him on a plane to New York. Could you meet the plane, have him stay overnight in some hotel, and then take him to the thing and then put him on plane that evening to go back to Moscow? I said, can you handle it ok? I said or do I have to come there? She says, no, I'll take care of it. So she did.

She had the meeting... So, Robert came, Robert Davoyan. I got him to Washington, and he went to their show and then he flew to New York. And then Mariam was there, she attended the meeting. I said, make sure there's yourself and somebody else that understands the economics of this thing because otherwise it's useless. We're not entertaining the guy. So, she says, ok.

And so she got some VPs to attend this meeting. And Robert came and they had the meeting. And then I called Mariam up. I says, Mariam, what happened? She says, well, they talked it over, and they gonna send a group over to Armenia, 'cause, you know, 'cause having that number of hits really impressed them.

I knew, I was trying from ten o'clock till four o'clock in the morning. I said, how the heck am I gonna do anything in Armenia? How does anyone else do anything? You’re just trying to go there sixteen or seventeen lines through Moscow to serve all of Russia. Well, the AT&T guys went, they took an antenna and everything else to hook on to the satellite. And, see, everything worked fine. They connected up to the system, and we had a phone.

As soon as they got that dish working we didn't need Moscow anymore. We had about 600-700 lines, Moscow still sitting with 15-16 for all of Russia. You know, Moscow was very sympathetic because of the earthquake. They were bending laws to let Armenians survive. Armenia was favored a little bit.


(Voice File)

The way you do it is you have to have either the product you’re selling that brings you money that can then be distributed, redistributed and redistributed or something like right now I’ve been focusing on information technology. I was on the board of the University of Laverne, you know, AAIC American-Armenian International . So we sold the building and everything else.

So, two months ago I got the board agree. It must send, which we’ve done already, 200,000 dollars to University of Yerevan, 200,000 dollars to State Engineering University, 200,000 dollars to AUA for information technology only because there are jobs there now. They need trained people. They, each one had small programs going. So, now… Now with a couple of hundred thousand dollars, they can jump up quite a bit. And I says: ‘Grab the opportunity while it’s there.’ Then Hovnan Srpazan heard about this. He says: ‘Well, you know, at Claremont I got students we need… (smirks) So, we gave him 200,000.


(Voice File)

-------- is the high-tech jobs and the information technology because I know, like, there’s this Sam Simonian from Dallas, he’s been to big factories over there. And, you know, he’s hiring the people, he’s giving the American University $250,000 a year to train people for him. And there’s a couple of articles in the papers about this was only high-paying thing, profession that was, that made sense to me because you don’t have equipment money. Now, it’s brain power; you don’t have the real high-tech thing.


(Voice File)

Now you see Turkey’s trying to take over the port, Batumi. They wanted to take over, they wanted to lease it or they wanted to buy it. That would just sabotage Armenia to no end.


(Voice File)

I was really active there. I could hardly speak Armenian. So, who people were, what... I knew what I wanted to do. You know, personnel, people like Levon Ter-Petrosyan says: “Who asked you to do this?” “Who’re you working for?” “Why are you doing this?” Nobody. Or “How come you did it?” You know, like, I went to Batumi and I negotiated, getting an interest in that port. You know, I went through there twice, met Abashidze, talked to him. I says we need a door. And I went the second time, and we signed some agreements, Shevardnadze came over. We were videotaped and shown on Europe… er… some public TV. Some news thing, we saw the next morning, Sunday morning. And Abashidze says, you know…

Anyway, it’s… got have this place. And Abashidze says there was two docks that are broken. If you wanna repair those, you can have ’em. And they want to build a new airport out in the water because where you land there, you come down this mountain, there’s a short runway here in the Black Sea. So, even small jets can or any plane can’t fly there, you can’t fly a big plane. He said: “We’re gonna build a whole new one.” I said: “What’s it gonna cost?” They figured about two billion. He said: “What part do you want?” I said 10%. It’s gonna be four supertankers, thirty-four breeders.

Well, I got the agreements, I signed the protocols. At 2 o’clock I landed in Yerevan. At 4 o’clock I was in Levon Ter-Petrosian’s office. And I said here’s what I’ve done. He looks and he’s like: “200 million dollars? Where are we gonna get it” I said I don’t know. I said but if we’re gonna be a country we have to have a door. This is the best door I can do with my own analysis. “Who’re you working for?” “Nobody.” “Who told you to do this?” “Nobody.” “And how’re you doing?” I said just (smirks) that’s a kind of guy I am…


(Voice File)

I spent one afternoon with Barkev Srpazan who is very… the only militaristic Srpazan I ever met (chuckles). He had the war maps and plans and…


(Voice File)

Two weeks before we got Shushi, I got 75 walkie-talkies, first group. And this person there, Karen Karapetian – president of the Amateur Radio Club of Armenia – I befriended him, I says: “I need you, guys, to take.” They said… ’Cause something’s gonna happen. I don’t know the exact details.

And, you know, I never let him take a radio without a spare battery and a charger. I says: “You never send anybody out with only the radio because if battery goes dead, and you see something, you can’t report.”

So they went there and they had a van, well I call it a van, like a Volkswagen van. And then when they came back there were bullet holes on it (laughs).

They got there, they trained a couple of guys how to use it who trained the others.

They said: “We knew exactly what we were doing when we took Shushi.” And they played the decoy thing, he said, Barkev Srpazan was telling me, he says, we went up this hill, road ’cause there are two roads going up. And then they had the mountain climbers in the <--->. And the Azeris drove them back. They went up, and Azeris drove them back. So, Azeris said ok, we can’t control here, they’re gonna have to come up this road. Actually, what they were doing was testing the defenses. The day that thing came, they shot right up there, the first tank got blown in. Yeah, they made a monument out of it. I met the wife… er… the sister of that guy. And then they could talk to you and they were only going to stop at Shushi. The Azeris were running so they kept going until clear across…


(Voice File)

A friend of mine was building this school. It was in… Ga… Right across from the Turkish border. It used to be a big city in Armenia. In Armenia.

His son is crippled and handicapped. So, he wanted to build a school with all the ramps and everything for handicapped children. And he spent half a million dollars. And goes over there, this isn’t right, that isn’t right. And he wanted tufa stone all the way around. That’s another 75,000. This, this, this, and nothing works. He was there a few months ago. The roofs are leaking. And they wanted another 100,000. I told him, Joe, I said, stop giving it. Way too much.

And he says, they promised to put the road up to the school. It’s still just mud. How can the kids come?


(Voice File)

We got books here; we're now gonna take a lot of them to the Diocese, talk to Srpazan 'cause I can't read them.

And I got some in the garage of my father. So... 'cause he was collecting stuff. Back in 1914-15-16-17 there was "Hayrenik" published in Boston. Ok, well, my father when he got, bound them into books by the year. The books were like this, about this high, about 2,5 feet high.

So, Richard Hovhannisian heard about them. He, there's another professor who died. Anyway, they heard about this. Richard said I need those books. And I said, let me... I'll donate them to UCLA library.

My father... this was the only, it's the only complete set. Nobody had kept issues, back issues. And we had these books in Wyoming, in the attic and I shipped them out here. But they were complete, and he had leather covers made to fit full pages. Because Richard says, you know, I borrowed, it was on my grand piano, he says, to do research for his books. He says, this is the only set there is.

The library says they're gonna microfish ’em or film them, so people can study them. That way, nobody's gonna touch the paper because it's very old. He was that dedicated. At times there's two years in one book, at other times one year but it was all there, every single issue. I just can't believe he was saving everything. You know that... and then paying money to have them bound into a book. It ended up in Wyoming for 27 years...

I think he was a party member. 'Cause they were the one mostly interested. It wasn't like today's Dashnaks (smirks).


(Voice File)

Petrosian… what was her name? Manushak. Yes, she did. Especially out of South America. See, all these computers and things. I was down there one day I wanted to go and see what these girls are all doing. They’re all concentrating on their computers. All playing games! I was wondering what do they do and why do they need all these computers. So when somebody in South America promised I’m gonna help bring some computers. Fine. They got all this. Well, we need workers. So, what are they doing? Nothing! Playing games


(Voice File)

You go over there, they want to impress you. They’re gonna impress you. You know these dinners, you say, my god, how can they? You know I still wonder they take me out to a dinner and all this stuff comes and this and this and we go out and who paid what? But it’s such waste.

I went to a dinner once with the mayor. What’s his name? Former mayor -------- It was him and a couple of other guys. We go to this hotel. This side door… That big hotel by the Hrazdan… The Dvin. Everywhere I went everyone was giving me everything. Anyway, we go into this, walking into this big room. I mean it was set up for 75-80 people. Bowls of fruit and this and the cheeses and… all over. Four of us. We sat down, I says, ‘well, who’s coming?’ ‘That’s it.’ I says: “Oh! Listen, we’re sitting in this huge room. What’s gonna happen with all this stuff?”


(Voice File)

People have an illusion what Armenia is. And what they always heard, Armenia is such a nice, clean country.

Now you come along with some dirt; your trying to destroy this illusion. And if that’s all you’re talking about, they don’t wanna hear it ’cause you destroy the dream they had.

We wanted a country. We wanted a country. Anyway, and we got that country. And were we prepared for it? Hell no. And it came in a disastrous way. So, there, we got the country that was so crippled economically, in anyway, I mean, all these high-tech jobs that were there all went out the window. The work, the contracts, the big factories that were almost finished, beautiful, modern, stopped.

Buildings were destroyed, people, thousands and thousands… I don’t really know how many thousands really died. The Russians stopped at 25,000. And those… you know, there’s a lot of poor places, people have no money now. The country doesn’t have money to restore, rebuild or reforest.

Well, there’s no customer for them because of the Soviet system where you make a part, they make a part, they make a part, and nobody has the whole thing. But we lost this customer because he didn’t have the next customer. So, everything went down. Big industrial plants we had there shut down. They were shut for years.

So, you know, we had so many strikes against us. It’s just a wonder that we’re starting to recover.


(Voice File)

There’s too much power concentrated in too few hands. So, you know, these liked to get overall government power and got it. The crook guys are government. So there’s just a few of them, and they’ve got everything, they’ve got unlimited resources.


(Voice File)

All of a sudden they had three Mercedes 600s. And just before that, I took a 150,000 dollars. Levon Ter Pedrosyan says “the people are starving”. The need food. So Srpazan and I went through all the accounts wherever we can barrow money and take out 150,000 cash, but it in the bag, go over there and to Stepanakert and gave it to Kocharyan. A couple of weeks later I hear that they got 3 new jeeps. Oh and someone said that they were given to them. I said in there position if someone gave it to the they should sell it right away. The soldiers have no food. Stupidest thing I ever participated in I tell you.


(Voice File)

Their the three that spilt the 150k. I’ll never forget them. Because I worked allot with Serj when I was taking all the stuff down --- in fact he gave me a pistol all engraved. I don’t know what I did was, I didn’t know what to do with it. Souren got concerned about my keeping it at the hotel and I said I don’t want to bring it here. So finally there was Avak Khachadouryan, he was sort of the secretary to the defense minister. He said so we have a museum for weapons and things, he says I’ll put it there for you and I says ok. And a few months later I find that they put him in jail and that the gun was in his possession. He was taking things up to Akhakalak. There was allot of equipment up there.


(Voice File)

VB: All the brains, before this happened, for spying equipment, computer technology and everything else was centered in Armenia.

Well, look, the Laser Institute.

VB: Yeah

What ever happened to Velik Haroutiounian?

VB: They killed him.

They killed him? How many years before did that happen?

VB: About 3-4 years ago.

Who ended up killing him, you think?

VB: I think Serj.

Why would Serj kill him? What did he know?

VB: He sold that factory. Velik er… He got the Greeks, I think, into it.

Serj did?

VB: And, so he made a deal with them, the only witness was Velik. He suddenly got sick. I was very close with Velik. We did a lot of work together. Velik was a nice man. And we did some good things. Anyway. I don’t know what’s happened, the Laser factory’s gone. I don’t know what’s going on there…

Did he tell you that the deal was with the Greeks or did you figured that out?

VB: I got some bits and pieces. I told Mihran Aghbabian, we should honor him in some way.

Why would Serj kill him?

VB: Because he didn’t want any witnesses to the fact that I don’t know how many million dollars he got for that.

So the Greeks have control of the Laser factory now?

VB: That’s what I understand. Nothing’s said any more, see.