The Peacemaker

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: March 2019
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From announcing the end of World War II to preserving iconic Arizona buildings, Gregory Melikian has played a key role in local and international history.

Photography by Jim DavidThe room that changed General Gregory Melikian’s life – and the lives of millions – is preserved at a museum in Reims, France, as a shrine to peace. The public is not permitted to walk beyond the glass wall, trace their fingers across the military maps or sit at the table where Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

But last November, when Melikian visited the museum with five other veterans, their French hosts opened the heavy doors to the room and said, “General, take a seat.” And so “The Man Who Ended World War II” pulled up a chair in the room that ended World War II. The 94-year-old recalled when, as a young radio operator, he sent the coded message announcing Germany’s surrender to the world. “It was very emotional,” Melikian says. “It was such a big thing to end that war. Foes and allies – 15.3 million military stopped firing at each other when my message went out.”

It’s been an eventful year for Melikian. The real estate developer and philanthropist was inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame. President Donald Trump thanked him for his service during an Armistice Day speech in a French cemetery. In January, Melikian returned to France at the personal request of President Emmanuel Macron.

Then again, it’s been an eventful near-century for Melikian. To talk with the Phoenix resident today is to travel through time and around the planet. He speaks – as people who’ve lived incredibly full lives often do – in a tapestry of tales and tangents. You may ask, “What languages do you speak?” But you will not get the simple answer: Armenian, French, Spanish and English. You will be taken on an international tour, from his business dealings with Puerto Ricans in New York to the nightclubs of Cuba to the shores of the Caspian Sea where his wife, Emma, was born, to that little hotel near the Crimea the couple visited on one of three round-the-world trips.

But follow the threads, and two patterns emerge: his passions for peace and preservation.

“I love peace, not war,” he says. “I never believed in war, although I spent 70-some odd years in the Air Force Reserves, and I have a strong military career. I believe in peace.”

The threads of this belief stretch back to his parents, who escaped the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923). The Ottoman Turks executed males and killed women and children on death marches. Nuns saved Melikian’s 9-year-old mother from starvation on a march. His orphaned father immigrated to America as a teen.

Born in New York, Melikian grew up in a different warzone: gangster-run Queens. His father ran a trucking business and found himself in the middle of battles between longshoremen and teamsters. “I’d see, at [age] 11 or 12, people bleeding to death on the trucks,” Melikian says. “Even from those days, I believed in peace.” For young Gregory, the solution was studying law. “I said, ‘Maybe the law will teach me how to talk and negotiate.’ If we talk with each other, maybe we’re not apt to kill each other.”

German general Gustav Jodl signs the instruments of unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. Gregory Melikian broadcast this news to the world.He studied at the University of Illinois but was drafted into WWII. The military discovered he had a knack for coded language, so he was trained to be a telegraph radio operator and shipped to France in 1944. Later, he was stationed in Reims to replace an operator who’d been taken to a mental hospital. The job was literally maddening. The Germans jammed their radios with constant screeching, and through the racket, Melikian had to concentrate on every beep he heard and type each letter of code.

On May 7, at 3:30 a.m., officials entered the station and asked which of the operators was the youngest, because they wanted the lucky man to tell this story for the rest of his life. It was 20-year-old Melikian. The officer told him to send a coded message. Melikian guessed what it said, but wasn’t sure until he decoded it. Then he typed out the English translation. The Germans had surrendered.

After returning to New York, Melikian earned his law degree and became a real estate lawyer, then a night court judge. But he realized that, in a real estate deal, lawyers earn a fraction of what the principal reaps. So he began buying historical properties in top locations, from New York to Arizona. At a gala in New York, he met Emma, an Armenian-American classical dancer with a similarly dramatic family story – her father escaped imprisonment during the Russian Revolution and fled to Persia. They married in Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room and had four children. Through real estate, the couple fell in love with Arizona and moved here in 1969.

A few years later, Melikian purchased the Hotel San Carlos, an Italian Renaissance Revival gem on Central Avenue. He spruced it up, tiling it with marble from a quarry he visited in Italy. It’s one of numerous historical properties his family has preserved, including the Arizona Inn in Tucson and the American Intertribal Council building in Phoenix. Melikian says shiny new structures are nice, but “they’re missing one thing: character.”

In 1984, he endowed the Melikian Center at Arizona State University, which teaches often overlooked Eurasian languages. It’s another part of his peacemaking mission. Federal agencies recruit students from the center and send them overseas to gather intelligence and advance intercultural relationships. “We have to learn each other’s languages to get along,” Melikian says. “It’s when you don’t speak each other’s language that you start bombing each other’s women and children and elderly.”

Melikian also donated the original English version of the telegraph he typed in 1945. It is preserved at ASU’s Hayden Library as a shrine to peace.

• Ample land and sunny weather made the Valley a magnet for new military bases during WWII. 1941 to 1942 saw the construction of Glendale’s Luke Air Force Base and Thunderbird Field (funded by Hollywood stars including Cary Grant), Chandler’s Williams Air Force Base and Mesa’s Falcon Field.

• On the flip side, Camp Florence was built to incarcerate 13,000 prisoners of war. Camp Papago Park became infamous when 25 German POWs tunneled out of the bathhouse in the largest POW escape in the U.S. during WWII.

• More than 400 Navajos were trained as code talkers. They relayed messages during Pacific battles using a complicated system in which each letter of the English alphabet was assigned a Navajo word for an animal. The code was never broken.