Dr. Dennis Richard Papazian (91) passed away peacefully on Thursday, March 16, 2023 after a brief illness. Born the youngest of four children in Augusta, Georgia to Armenian parents from Istanbul, Turkey, Dennis lived a life of devotion and service to his community, church, and nation. His family moved to Detroit, Michigan in the mid 1940s to join a growing Armenian community. As his family struggled to create a life in a new land, Dennis was determined to pursue an education that would ensure a life of security and the promise of the American dream. Across the arc of his life, Dennis was recognized as a distinguished leader and pillar of the Armenian community, with significant achievements in academia, political advocacy, and church stewardship.
As a young man, Dennis was nurtured by numerous mentors such as Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan and Professor George Naknikian, whom he came to know through the Armenian church community and as a student leader at Wayne State University. During these years, his leadership abilities continued to grow, as he encountered prominent leaders, including two American presidents and a former First Lady. The youngest of four siblings, Dennis was the first in his family to earn a college degree, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and becoming one of the first American students to study in the then Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. This experience placed him at the center of major geopolitical events that influenced the course of his life. He also was active in the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA), serving on the Central Council and traveling frequently from Detroit to New York, something he would do years later as a member of the Diocesan Council for the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church. Dennis’s time in the Soviet Union led him to become an esteemed analyst as the Soviet Union broke apart decades later.
Upon his return to Michigan in 1962 following his recovery from a near fatal air crash in Uzbekistan, Dennis went on to live a life of contribution and service and became a key leader in the emergence of an Armenian-American community just finding its footing fifty years after the 1915 Armenian Genocide. For over forty years, Dennis enjoyed a distinguished academic career as a noted author, speaker, and professor of history specializing in Russia and the Soviet Union. Dennis’s tenure at the University of Michigan, Dearborn started in 1962, when he joined the faculty. Soon after, he began serving as head of the department of social and behavioral sciences. From there, he oversaw the division of literature, science and the arts, then briefly held the title of associate dean of academic affairs. In his early years, Dennis led the expansion of the Dearborn Campus from a upper two-year college to a four-year university. In 1985, he founded the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan, Dearborn and served as its first director until his retirement in 2006. As a result of his tutelage and leadership, several of Dennis’s students went on to work for the CIA, the State Department and other government agencies. He also served as an authority on Russia and the former Soviet Union for numerous media outlets and as an expert resource in dozens of refugee and asylum cases from the former Soviet Union and its successor republics.
In addition to his role as an educator and scholar, Dennis served tirelessly as a forward-looking and creative leader of the emerging Armenian-American community, where he worked with leaders such as Alex Manoogian, Edward and Helen Mardigian, Stephen Mugar, Hrair Hovnanian, Richard Hovannisian, and many more. Dennis was the founding executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, a national organization whose mission is to promote public understanding and awareness of issues affecting Armenian-Americans. Under his leadership, the Armenian Assembly worked with key elected officials to secure passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution in the United States House of Representatives. He also brought together several Armenian organizations to apply for and receive $1 million in grant funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for the Aid to Lebanon project which supported the Armenian community in the Bourj Hamoud neighborhood of Beirut during the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. Dennis pitched to and worked with National Geographic to create a piece about the Armenian-American community entitled “The Proud Armenians,” which was published in 1978.
Dennis traveled extensively during his career, presenting papers and delivering lectures in Armenia, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Israel and several other countries. At one point in his career, he conducted research on the USSR and personally worked with the State Department to coordinate an exchange between the University of Michigan and Moscow State University. In 1976 Dennis received an award from the U.S. Department of State honoring his work as a scholar and diplomat, which was followed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1977 and an award from the USAID in 1978.
Together with his wife Mary, the former President of San Jose State University, whom he married in 1991, Dennis was an ardent and faithful member of the Armenian community throughout his life. He represented the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America on the Supreme Spiritual Councils held in Etchmiadzin, Armenia that elected Catholicos Karekin I (1995) and Catholicos Karekin II (1999) and participated in several Armenia-Diaspora conferences in Armenia during the early years of independence. Dennis served on numerous boards and panels related to education and civic outreach, such as the Society for Armenian Studies, St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, the Michigan chapter of the American Red Cross, the Michigan Ethnic Heritage Association, and, most recently, as a member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education. He held numerous leadership roles in the Armenian community, including president on several occasions of the Society for Armenian Studies, advisor to the annual Times Square Armenian Genocide Commemoration, member of the Diocesan Council of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church, and as Grand Commander of the Knights of Vartan, an Armenian fraternal organization. He also has been affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, the National Association for Ethnic Studies, the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Throughout his career, Dennis spoke to audiences large and small on topics ranging from Russian and Soviet history, Armenian Genocide recognition, theology and the Armenian church, among many other topics. He authored numerous essays, articles, books and op-eds, served as editor of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies (JSAS) from 1995 to 2001, and recently completed his memoir, From My Life and Thought: Reflections on an Armenian-American Journey, which was published in May 2022 by The Press at Fresno State University, as part of their Armenian Studies series. Dennis holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Wayne State University, a Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the Armenian State Pedagogical University in Yerevan, Armenia.
Dennis is survived by his wife Mary; his daughters Ani and Marie; nieces Louise Yardumian (Haig), Elise Papazian, Melody Lopez (Marc), and Vicki Ware (Hank); nephews Leon Sarkisian (Sharon) and Garo Papazian; great-niece Nicole Papazian; great-nephews Edward Yardumian (Eva), Ara Yardumian (Tatiana), Nishan Papazian, Alex Lopez, and Christian Lopez; great-great-nieces Kennedy Yardumian and Valentina Yardumian; great-great-nephews Eli Yardumian and Edward Yardumian; brothers-in-law Robert Arshagouni (Manya), Michael Arshagouni (Ned Rodriguez), and Paul Arshagouni (Long Hoang); nieces Nina Arshagouni (Matt Pugmire), Liana Arshagouni, and Beth Arshagouni; and great-nieces Alik, Aida, and Maro Arshagouni; as well as dozens of extended family members, colleagues, and friends. He will be deeply missed.
There will be memorial services in his honor on various days across the country. Visitation will be held at St. Andrew Armenian Church in Cupertino, CA on Thursday, March 30 at 6:00 pm with a prayer service at 7:00 pm. The funeral service will take place at St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank, CA and will be officiated by His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian on Tuesday, April 4 at 9:30 am. A graveside service will follow at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, with a memorial luncheon to follow. A 40-day memorial service will take place at St. John’s Armenian Church in Southfield, MI on Sunday, April 30, with a reception to follow. A Celebration of Life will take place in the New York/New Jersey area later this year, with details to follow.
In lieu of flowers a donation can be made to the Dennis R. Papazian Memorial Foundation for advancing Armenian scholarship, education, and leadership. Donations can be mailed to the Dennis R. Papazian Memorial Foundation in care of Robert Arshagouni, 9176 Independence Avenue, Chatsworth, CA 91311.