By Tom Vartabedian
---- — The last impression I have of Sara Jaffarian was tapping on the window of her home, hoping to gain her attention. She didn’t answer.
Odd, considering the whereabouts of a 98-year-old woman living independently in a family homestead where she was born and spent her lifetime.
I was accompanied by Ruth Thomasian, executive director of Project SAVE, an archival photographic preserve based in Watertown. We were there to document her family history and use it for both historical research and as an educational tool about the Armenian Diaspora.
The Jaffarians were among the first Armenian-American immigrants to settle in Haverhill, leaving their mark on the fields of business, education, philanthropy and humanitarian service.
Sara was the last of 10 siblings and matriarch over the remaining clan, though she never wed. She had a prominent career in library sciences.
We rang the doorbell to no avail, thinking she may have been taking a mid-afternoon nap. It was then we noticed footprints in the snow leading to her living room window. Obviously, others had the same idea and rapped on the same pane.
“Why don’t we just step into the impressions already made?” it was suggested. “A trail has already been made to her window in the snow.”
Little did we know Sara had already been transported to a nearby hospice center, before succumbing on Christmas Eve — her wishes unfulfilled.
More than anything, she had hoped that a treasure trove of family photographs located in boxes throughout her home would somehow be documented and preserved accordingly, rather than become forgotten remnants of the past.
“You don’t know how happy this makes me,” she said. “I’ve wanted to record my family history for many years, not knowing how much time I have left. It’s the last piece of unfinished business I have in my life.”
We opted to return another day and continue the task. That day never arrived, finding her home empty and unattended. If only we had acted sooner.
“Memory, just like life, is fragile,” Thomasian pointed out. “In a puff of time, it is gone. Unfortunately, we often value memory most after we have lost it.”
The two women both shared a common thread, as alumnae of Simmons College. While Sara was enrolled in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science during World War II, Ruth had done her graduate work in Communication Management.
Sara didn’t stop there, securing a master’s degree in education from Boston University. A bachelor’s degree in social studies from Bates University started her academic career after graduating from Haverhill High School in 1933.
She began her career as a librarian in the Quincy School System, later serving as director of libraries in North Carolina and supervisor of libraries in Seattle, Wash., before returning to her home state to develop a school library program in Lexington.
Once she started, she never stopped, as one book led to another geared toward the enrichment of youth.
Few, if any, made such an indelible impact in libraries throughout the country. For 63 years, she remained an active member of the American Library Association. An award she presented annually recognized, promoted and supported excellence in humanities programming throughout elementary and middle school libraries.
The award carried a $4,000 cash allotment, a plaque and the promotion of the winning school as a model program for other institutions. Recent recipients have come from schools in Chicago, Kansas, Illinois, Texas, West Virginia and Massachusetts.
Moreover, the award also provided training for school librarians across the country. She took the initiative to promote a school library to the next level, exciting students, bringing in parents and getting the attention of administrators and community leaders.
A humble woman from modest Armenian roots, she thought nothing of traveling to Georgia in 2006 at 90 years old for reasons that dictate extreme humanitarianism. Hurricane Katrina had ravished a library in that state and she wanted to be there on a personal mission.
The contribution she made was only second to a donation rendered by then First Lady Laura Bush that day, another true school library advocate.
“I’m so happy to meet you,” Sara told her benevolent counterpart.
“No, the pleasure is having met you,” the First Lady told Sara. “The honor is all mine.”
The two posed for photos together as pledge dollars did their part in getting a new library erected.
In an interview conducted by her hometown paper, Sara indicated her work was just beginning and she wanted to do something for her beloved Haverhill Public Library. As you enter the front door, immediately to your right is the Sara Jaffarian Reading Room she financed shortly after Katrina.
Intended to be used by seniors, it covers all patrons of the library who come here to sit and read and be tutored, filled with magazines and other publications. Generations lay privy to the room and appear all the better for it.
“Throughout my career, I worked in many capacities to promote the idea that every school needs a library,” she said. “In order to have an excellent school, there must be an excellent school library.”