Vartan Gregorian, genial savior of the New York Public Library, dead at 87

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Vartan Gregorian, a philanthropist and scholar widely credited with saving a down-on-its heels New York Public Library system in the 1980s, died Thursday in Manhattan after being hospitalized for stomach pain.

He was 87.

Gregorian was a former president of Brown University, which he led from 1989 to 1997, and had headed the Carnegie Corporation of New York since leaving the Ivy League university.

He was an author, historian and teacher, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and France’s Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 2017, in recognition of his work strengthening US-France relations.

But he will be remembered in New York for rescuing its nonprofit library system — its “People’s University,” as he called it.

When Gregorian took charge in 1981, branch buildings and services throughout the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan had deteriorated after a decade of budget cuts — a disrepair then symbolized by the dirt that streaked the iconic marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, who guard the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Beaux-Arts main library.

Gregorian quickly steeped himself in the system’s mechanics, visiting the branches and rallying A-list philanthropists — most notably Brooke Astor, whose foundation gave $10 million — to fund major renovations, acquisitions and innovations.

It was a labor of lasting love and awe.

Gregorian, born to Armenian parents in Tabriz, Iran, had arrived in America in 1956 to study history and the humanities at Stanford University.

He recalled first entering the Fifth Avenue main library as a young man, to visit its Slavic literature section — but leaving the building soon afterward, overwhelmed.

“I simply could not believe that someone could walk up those big front steps and enter that extraordinary building without any questions, without any identification, no proving this or proving that, and no one asking are you liberal, conservative, or wishy-washy,” he told The New Yorker in 1986.

The NYPL marked his passing with sadness, calling his contribution to the city “immeasurable.”

“As President from 1981–89, his leadership and tenacity revitalized and reaffirmed the Library as the preeminent civic and educational institution that New Yorkers know and love today,” the library said in a statement.

“Through his efforts and leadership, the Library was able to weather, recover, and rebound from a decade of fiscal crisis, restoring hours of service in the branches, renovating many historic locations, growing and strengthening circulating collections with a focus on multilingual and multicultural materials, increasing education and literacy programs, and investing in curators and expert staff in the research libraries, among other things.”

Gregorian continued his support of the library through his work at the Carnegie Corporation, and “his legacy will positively impact our city for generations to come.”

The distinguished historian and humanities scholar was the Carnegie Corporation’s twelfth president, they said in a statement. hailing his championing of “the causes of education and world peace.”

“Vartan Gregorian served the Corporation for 24 years as an extraordinary leader and a devoted steward of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy,” said former NJ Gov. Thomas Kean, chair of the corporation’s New York board of trustees.

“We will remember him most for his immense intellect, his thoughtful generosity, his witty, learned, and sly sense of humor, and his uncanny ability to both inspire and challenge each of us to do our utmost to advance the Corporation’s mission above all else. He was a man of the world who inspired the world.”

Former Mayor Bloomberg called him “a towering intellect whose passion for public service was matched only by his kindness and compassion for others.”

Gregorian is survived by his sons, Vahé Gregorian and his wife Cindy Billhartz Gregorian of Kansas City, Missouri; Raffi Gregorian of New York; and Dareh Gregorian and his wife Maggie Haberman Gregorian of Brooklyn, New York. He is also survived by five grandchildren and a sister, Ojik Arakelian, of Massachusetts and Iran.

With Post wires

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