hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

September 19, 2013

Bulger's Winter Hill Gang hits home

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — My cousin Richard Vartabedian and I had something very much in common. As sons of enterprising Armenian dads, we worked inside their luncheonettes as young entrepreneurs.

Our shops were located a half-mile apart along the Broadway section of Somerville, more specifically Winter Hill, where the James “Whitey’’ Bulger mob roamed.

You may know them as “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” made famous by a Jimmy Breslin book.

The standing joke in our neighborhood was this: If you didn’t mind your business, the Irish mob would seek you out.

We lived there, too, smack dab in Winter Hill with all the shenanigans of the 1940s and 1950s. Bulger was a household name. You could say the same for Vartabedian, since our family brood was very much a part of community life.

We would pass the stores and shops where Bulger’s infamy took hold. There were times when we’d look behind our back to see if we were being followed. They were skittish moments to say the least. Growing up along Broadway might have been “The Road to Perdition.” You may have seen the movie starring Tom Hanks.

Cousin Richard and I were 10 years apart, but our lives struck a parallel. We both graduated from Somerville High, attended Boston University and entered our dads’ businesses when the time came.

I was bent on becoming a journalist. Richard had hoped to become an optometrist, ended up for a short time in the jewelry industry before moving his family to Westwood, Mass., and spending the next 48 years working for General Motors Chevrolet Parts Division before retiring in 2000.

The last time I saw my cousin alive was 10 months ago at the funeral of his wife, Dorothy. He showed up in duress. Cancer was beginning to take its toll on the guy and the grief he suffered did nothing to ease his misery.

He was a trooper as one would expect, having served as a colonel in the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune during the Korean War. Richard was always at salute, whether it was our nation’s colors or his own family.

Sick as he was, it didn’t prevent him from caring for his ill wife over the months leading up to her death. Nobody in our family expected that role reversal. Dorothy Vartabedian had been a motivational speaker, writer and missionary of sorts who traveled near and far to spread the word of peace and conviction. They were two acorns on the same sturdy tree of life.

The next time Richard and I met was at his own funeral on Aug. 8. He had spent the ensuing months in treatment and finally hospice care. He died at 83, but not without a gracious bow to humanity.

You won’t find a litany of organizations beside his name. Richard was not an organizational fanatic, but he was organized in home and family affairs. Had you attended his wake, you would have seen the photographs on display at Bedrosian’s Funeral Home.

One showed him with my dad and his other siblings. When we got together with our families for a holiday or celebration, the place was jumping with festivity. Drinks in hand, tables sagging with food, laughter and ethnicity galore. The Armenian connection was rock solid.

With three sons, my cousin enjoyed unadulterated pride. All three boys became Eagle Scouts and inspired my own two boys to follow their trail. Richard’s sons took these routes: Brian went on to become a nationally-renowned pediatrician and author on the subject; Alan enjoyed prominent success as an architect; and Mark carved out a noted reputation as a personal trainer, fitness guru and therapist.

You might say those three sons would have made any dad proud, not to mention the four grandchildren. Richard’s extreme loyalty to his family was very prudently outlined by Rev. Archpriest Aram Stepanian in his eulogy.

His message of the day was directed toward the youth seated in the pews. It told a very valuable story, hopefully one they would digest and come to grips with in their grandfather’s demise: That what we do for ourselves selfishly dies with us. But what we do for others gallant lives on, becomes part of our legacy, keeps the flickering candle burning brightly. Monuments are used to memorialize our dearly departed. In Richard’s case, the memorial was his book of golden deeds.

There was the photo of him with sister Lorraine (Mimi) and younger brother Gerald, who died at a tender age. When we all matriculated to Somerville High, the teachers there were caught saying, “Oh, no! Not another Vartabedian.” My Uncle Jake also sent six children there ahead of me.

One other image caught my eye, showing Richard with his white counter apron flashing a smile. Winter Hill kept us together — with or without Whitey Bulger!

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.