It was with shock and sadness that those of us who knew and loved Helen Pompeian received news of her passing so close to Christmas.
The news of her death prompted me to reach into my desk for a silver coin of Queen Zabel and King Hetoum (1226-70 A.D.) standing side by side, sent to me by coin collector Gary Setian. For some reason, that ancient queen reminded me of Helen, regal and lovely.
She was born Helen Nazarian on Feb. 25, 1925 in Pontiac, Mich., and went through that city’s school system with other children born to survivors of the Armenian Genocide. She grew up in a close-knit neighborhood made up of many Armenian families who always spoke their native language at home. In our frequent phone conversations, she absolutely delighted in speaking Armenian and would exclaim, “I love it when you speak Armenian with me.”
She married Edward Pompeian in 1945 and together they had daughter Sharon and son Edward.
She was one of the charter members of the Pontiac “Ani” Chapter of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), until her permanent move to Rochester, Minn.
This move in 1972 was prompted following local medical misdiagnoses of her teen son Edward, whose health was not improving. Helen was advised by neighborhood friend Dr. Jack Kevorkian to take the youngster to the Mayo Clinic, a decision she never regretted.
There she eventually became a kidney donor to her son; in a past interview, she said to me, “I thank God and the hands of the doctors of the Mayo Clinic. With His help they saved Edward’s life.”
It was because of this experience that Edward Pompeian, now a successful businessman, decided to start the first-ever facility to house transplant patients, giving them a place where they can share their experiences of a life-threatening disease and the recuperation following transplant. That was the beginning of Gift of Life Transplant House (on whose board Edward sits), which has grown to impressive proportions and served as a model for others around the world.
No mother could be prouder than Helen was of her son and his wanting to give back, through a magnanimous gesture, inexpensive housing for those who otherwise could not afford regular accommodations while under treatment.
Helen’s book Gifts of Love and Life describes everything she and her family went through during Edward’s illness.
She became a leader in fundraising for the National Kidney Foundation. One of her most successful endeavors was an accepted invitation by actor Mike Connors, or Krikor Ohanian of “Mannix” fame, to be a guest speaker at a major fundraiser (where, as she fondly recalled, he was seated next to her).
“I was deeply impressed with Mike’s heartfelt interest in Armenian history and his acute knowledge of the Armenian massacres. His grandfather had been a victim of those terrible days,” she once said.
While in Pontiac, she worked in sales at the upscale Arthur’s Women’s Apparel shop. Her warm, outgoing personality, coupled with her keen fashion sense, made her a sought-after sales expert.
One of our mutual joys was the fact that Helen, General Antranik, Sonny Gavoor, and I all shared the same birthday.
Even through the advancing years, Helen remained a very attractive, shapely blond still wearing those wonderful three -inch heels and putting the rest of us to shame.
On one of her visits to our area to lunch with a group of old friends, she still sparkled and took over the room with her vivacious laughter and story telling. She had charm galore. Those qualities must have helped in getting her through life’s difficulties, which she faced with strength and bravery.
In Minnesota, she joined the Armenian Cultural Organization. She loved to entertain and, while doing so, showcased her expertise in cooking traditional Armenian food specialties.
She was always surrounded by a supportive family who realized what a remarkable, nurturing woman she was.
Edward and wife Jayne presented Helen with four loving grandchildren, Edward, Aaron, Nicholas, and Adrienne.
Daughter Sharon, a registered nurse, and Michael Maraian presented Helen with her other grandson, Paul, who became an attorney and major with the Air Force serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Helen was elated when Paul married Arous, presenting Helen with great-granddaughter Araxie Helen, her namesake and, according to Helen, an extremely intelligent toddler.
Helen worked as a secretary in her son’s real estate firm and later as an administrative assistant at the Gift of Life Transplant House, where she spent hours consoling patients and their parents, and offering an understanding heart to them during a time of great concern. She was perfect for the role.
Her notes to me were frequent, her penmanship exquisite. She was so appreciative of the columns I wrote in the Armenian Weekly about her son’s illness, and about her, the nurturing mother who saw her family through life’s problems. She was an angel on earth, and now she will fittingly be among God’s angels. That extra bright star you see shining will be our Helen.
She will be missed very much.