From tragedy, a dedication to education and service

April 23, 2017

By Leslie Ridgeway

Professor Frank Zerunyan has served three terms as mayor of the City of Rolling Hills Estates.

Zerunyan with his grandmother on his first day of kindergarten

Zerunyan’s grandparents with his father and aunt, circa 1942

Zerunyan, at 17 years old, with his grandmother in Istanbul

Frank Zerunyan remembers the stories his grandmother told about the Euphrates River running red-brown with blood and the bodies floating in it, about the relentless violence and killings, and being prodded to the Deir ez-Zor desert in Syria by military police who offered little or no food or water. She lost the use of one eye during the death march, but among all those terrible memories, the cause eluded her.

“Years later I asked some doctor friends what could have happened, and they said it was the stress that shut one eye off,” said Zerunyan, Professor of the Practice of Governance and Director of Executive Education at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. “She saw people being raped, soldiers taking their swords and stabbing pregnant women. It was scary to hear these stories.”

Gazing into his grandmother’s one good eye while she spoke left a lasting impression, he said.

“You look in that one eye, and you could feel and sense the pain,” he said. “I am eternally grateful that I could spend the time with my grandmother and learn about my heritage. I can’t bring back my ancestors – but every effort that I make is to prevent another (genocide) from occurring.”

During April, declared Armenian History Month in Los Angeles County by the L.A. Board of Supervisors, many like Zerunyan are remembering the past and taking steps to shape a brighter future for Armenia and the rest of the world. For him, the way forward leads with education and public service, evidenced by his law degree from Western State University, his three terms as mayor of the City of Rolling Hills Estates, and his academic career at USC Price.

His family tree includes a great-grandfather and great-uncle, both of whom were killed in the actions recognized today by 29 countries as the Armenian Genocide, and both of whom dedicated their lives to education and public service.

“My great-grandfather was a member of the school board and my great-uncle was a professor at the American university in the Ottoman Empire,” said Zerunyan from his office at the Price School. “Both were slaughtered in the early stages of the genocide because they were part of the intelligentsia and in public service. The only thing I could hope for is that I could do (education and public service) somewhere else.”

And it had to be somewhere other than Istanbul, Turkey, where he was born. His father was a successful businessman, selling women’s clothing, but, as Zerunyan noted bluntly, “When you get too successful in Turkey and are of Armenian descent, it doesn’t go too well.”

An only child, his parents reluctantly sent him to boarding school in Paris, where he attended middle and high school. It was an exciting environment for a teenager, and offered the opportunity to learn French, which Zerunyan speaks fluently, but his permanent destination became obvious at age 18, after graduation, when he visited his godparents in America.

“They lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and I remember when I woke up the morning after I arrived I looked at the ocean, and the palm trees, and I quickly realized where I wanted to be.”

The first order of business was entering a degree program. The only school he knew about was UCLA, so he registered there, only to find out at the last minute that without a green card or citizenship papers, neither of which he had, he could not enroll in a publicly funded university. The registrar was sympathetic and suggested he try Cerritos Community College. He enrolled, made friends and as they all progressed, talk turned to transferring to a four-year university. His friends, all surfers, set their sights on Cal State Long Beach, which offered the added value of being closer to the water. Zerunyan followed, and it was a life-changing choice.

“The first week at Cal State Long Beach, I sat next to my wife in class,” he said with a broad grin. “I met Jody in 1981 and we’ve been married 31 years. It was meant to be.”

Another monumental decision – choosing law school – turned to be “one of the greatest decisions I ever made,” he said. “It opened many doors toward doing the things that mattered in my life.” It led to being asked in 1999 to serve on the Rolling Hills Estates planning commission, followed by serving as the chair, and finally, being asked by a retiring mayor to run for her seat, and realizing a lifelong dream to honor his family.

“One thing that bothered me was that my great-grandfather was not allowed to complete his term of office,” he said. “I said one day I would run as a symbolic gesture in his memory and of the other Armenians who were slaughtered in office. I dedicated my first year in office to my great-grandfather and my grand-uncle.”

His trajectory in public service and law eventually led to several rewarding experiences in teaching. In 2008, he was tapped by USC Price to teach as an adjunct, and later, a full-time professor in the practice of governance, bringing his public service experience directly into the classroom. He is the only doctor of law among the faculty and his experience implementing, not just studying, policies has led to several fruitful projects with fellow Price faculty. He’s currently at work with Assistant Professor Bill Resh on research into public servants and the role of engagement in their lives with respect to how unfulfilled or satisfied they are in public service.

“We hope this research will help local governments recruit, educate and retain public servants,” he said. “It’s part of every strategic plan in local governments.”

His latest project is on an international scale. After several years teaching summer classes in governance at American University in Armenia, as well as at several ministries, growing talk of Armenia’s struggle to surmount its oligarchic past began resonating strongly. With support from USC Price Dean Jack Knott, the Dean of the school of public policy at Yerevan State University in Armenia, and the Director of the Public Administration Academy of the Republic of Armenia, Zerunyan is creating a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Management for Armenian scholars. Expected to launch in 2018, the program will include a naming opportunity and a full ride for its students, who must agree to teach in Armenia for a minimum of five years following completion of the program. The culmination will be establishing a department of public administration and management at one of the universities in Yerevan, helping the university design the curriculum and teach it. In Zerunyan’s vision, one of the Ph.D. scholars trained in the program would be the department head.

“The idea is to (graduate) five scholars, and their impact will change the country,” he said. “We’re establishing a top-notch doctoral program for less than three million people. It’s ambitious but from a global perspective, it’s a very valiant effort. It will bring the nation forward and allow it to shed its past and belong to a new democracy.”

Armenia’s tragic history seared an indelible mark but also sparked a fire that drives Zerunyan to this day. Assaults against human rights anywhere in the world provoke a fierce reaction.

“At the end of the day I’m always on the side of human rights,” he said. “There’s no equivalent to human suffering or my reaction to it. It’s completely unacceptable no matter where it happens. My upbringing brings that anger in me. I’m more violent in my response to man’s inhumanity to man perhaps because of my upbringing.

“’Never again’ is not just a slogan. It’s a call to action.”