The Lifelong Friendship behind Astonishing $100 Million Gift to BU’s Medical School

Two Armenian families finding freedom in America. Two boys growing up poor a few doors apart in hardscrabble Pawtucket, R.I.

Two successful men—one a renowned cardiologist and former president of Boston University, the other a celebrated clarinetist for the Boston Pops—changing the course of Boston University history.

Lifelong friends Aram V. Chobanian (Hon.’06) and Edward Avedisian (CFA’59,’61) will now be connected forever as the namesakes of BU’s medical school. Thanks to a $100 million gift from Avedisian that will support scholarships, endowed faculty chairs, and cutting-edge research and teaching, the school is being renamed the Boston University Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine

University President Robert A. Brown called it “one of the most remarkable grants in the history of higher education” at a private signing ceremony at his residence in late August to accept the gift and formalize the school’s name change. 

The gift was announced to the public on Thursday at the school, before invited guests under a tent on Talbot Green, where both men shared the podium with Brown, Ahmass Fakahany, BU Board of Trustees chair, and Karen Antman, dean of the medical school and provost of the Medical Campus. Avedisian received a standing ovation and cheers before the sign with the new name was unveiled.

“This is a historic day for the medical school and for Boston University,” Brown said. The gift “gives an extra tailwind and boost to our aspirations that will benefit so many,” Fakahany said.

Avedisian and Chobanian donned ballcaps and white medical coats emblazoned with the new name. “With this white coat, I’m ready to see patients,” Chobanian said to laughter.

Avedisian is retired after nearly four decades of playing the clarinet with the Boston Pops and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. But it was the stunning success of his personal investments that afforded him the opportunity to give back to others. He has never forgotten his parents’ hard work and sacrifice, or the emphasis they placed on education, and he became a generous philanthropist to both the United States and Armenia in his later years. “I felt very fortunate, for BU and others that helped along the way,” he says.

Even still, in all of his donations to colleges and hospitals and schools, Avedisian never wanted anything named after himself, and he didn’t want his gift to BU to be any different. But when he proposed that his donation instead honor his childhood friend Chobanian, president emeritus of BU and dean emeritus of the School of Medicine and provost of the Medical Campus, as well as a nationally renowned cardiologist, the plan hit a bump. Chobanian, showing the same humility as Avedisian, firmly declined the honor when first asked—and a few more times after. Neither man, it seemed, wanted his own name up in lights. 

“Both men are very, very, humble,” Brown says. “Really old-school.”

Brown persisted with the pair, until finally they agreed as long as both their names were included. Brown calls it “the grand compromise.”

“How could I obstruct a gift of $100 million to the medical school that I spent my life at?” Chobanian says. “That was obviously a big factor, but I still felt it should be named after him, and my name didn’t have to go on there.”

“I didn’t want anything named after me,” Avedisian says. “But he said, ‘I’ll only do this if your name is attached.’ So, we’re attached.”

Students, scholarships, and research all benefit

The gift “will transform the medical school,” says Antman, dean of the medical school and provost of the Medical Campus. The Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine Endowed Fund will provide:

  • $50 million to support scholarships for medical students 
  • $25 million to support endowed professorships 
  • $25 million to the Avedisian Fund for Excellence to keep the school at the forefront of research and teaching

“I am glad that much of the support will support scholarships,” Antman says. “Medical school debt is a problem across the United States.” A study on the Class of 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges found the average medical school debt among students attending a public school was $194,280.

That contributes to the growing shortage of primary care doctors in the United States, since the much higher salaries for specialists make it possible for them to pay off student loans more rapidly. Some aspiring pediatricians and primary care doctors simply may not be able to afford to do so.

The cost also affects who can choose medical school, Antman says. “If you are first-generation American or first-generation in college, the idea that you are going to graduate with $200,000-plus in debt is unconscionable. They are afraid to take on that much debt.”

Avedisian’s gift, she says, “will approximately double the endowed scholarship aid we can offer.” The funds will come in over a period of at least five years.

One of the endowed professorships from the fund will be created in the name of Richard K. Babayan, a BU School of Medicine professor and chair emeritus of urology and former chief of urology at Boston Medical Center, BU’s primary teaching hospital and Boston’s safety net hospital. A friend of the Avedisians, Babayan is the former director of the medical school’s Armenia Medical Partnership Program, a post now held by Aram Kaligian, an assistant professor of family medicine.

Another endowed chair will support the director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), who will be a professor at the medical school.

“The endowed chairs will help us recruit the best and the brightest faculty,” Antman says, “which also helps attract the best students. The best students really resonate with the best faculty. The two together are synergistic—and then getting better equipment for both of them.”

Expensive equipment such as a cryogenic electronic microscope or a research MRI suite can cost millions. Granting agencies that support such purchases, such as the National Institutes of Health, often like to see matching dollars, Antman says.

“Then they’re more likely to give us the grant, so again we can attract the best faculty and students doing the most exciting cutting-edge research,” she says. “With these funds, we can renovate labs and attract students who might have gone elsewhere.”

The stories behind the name

Both men’s ties to BU date back more than half a century.

Chobanian joined the BU School of Medicine faculty in 1962 and made an impact as a professor, dean, and Medical Campus provost, taking a lead role when Boston City Hospital and Boston University Medical Center Hospital merged to create Boston Medical Center in 1996. He then stepped in during a tumultuous time as BU president ad interim after John Silber stepped down as president for good in 2003; the trustees removed the “ad interim” from his title in 2005. 

“At a time of turmoil,” says Brown, who succeeded Chobanian as president in 2005, “his calming influence held the University together and advanced it.”

Avedisian, in addition to being an alum, has made a number of previous donations to BU, including to scholarship funds in Chobanian’s name. The gift to the medical school also enabled the endowment of two scholarships at BU’s College of Fine Arts named in honor of Avedisian’s wife and Chobanian’s wife (see sidebar). His other BU connections include his niece and nephew: Laurie Onanian, who worked in BU’s development office for nine years, and Craig Avedisian (LAW’93), a commercial litigator. Both were deeply involved in arranging the gift.

But long before their BU days, Avedisian’s and Chobanian’s friendship was forged on the streets of Pawtucket.

“I first met Ed when he was a little squirt,” Chobanian says with a grin. 

Both families suffered tragic losses in the Armenian genocide, in which it’s estimated that as many as 1.5 million people died. Both men’s parents met and married after immigrating to the United States, and settled down to raise their children in Pawtucket, where there were plenty of jobs in the textile mills. The Chobanians lived at 549 Broadway, the Avedisians a few doors down, at 575.

With eight years between them (Chobanian was born in 1929, Avedisian in 1937), the boys weren’t that close—Chobanian knew Avedisian’s older brother, Paramaz, better, as they were only two years apart. “Ed was very small, but a very active individual,” Chobanian says. “He hung around, and we didn’t know what to do with him.”

But Avedisian says Chobanian was indirectly responsible for his eventual distinguished career in music.

“Aram was the pace car. Whatever Aram did, my brother did,” Avedisian says. “Aram studied clarinet, my brother studied clarinet. Then they both gave it up, and there was a clarinet in the house, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take that on.’” 

Soon Chobanian went off to college and medical school. Avedisian found his calling in the woodwind instrument. 

He chose BU after becoming entranced with the clarinetist on a recording of the Boston Symphony Orchestra he heard on the radio. “Who is this guy?” the teenage Avedisian asked himself. “I want to study with him.” The musician was Manuel Valerio, a professor at CFA.

At BU, Avedisian earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music—with a $350 scholarship his first year, he says, and more later. He went on to play for decades with both the Pops and the Boston Ballet Orchestra, appearing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, among many others, and backing greats like Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price.

Good fortune leads to another path

As his music career was thriving, it was Avedisian’s “sideline” as an investor, beginning in the 1970s, that ultimately made his generous philanthropy possible. He was self-taught, an avid reader of books on the topic as well as of Investor’s Business Daily, and eventually became a regular viewer of CNBC and Bloomberg on cable.

“You think about the deep discipline that’s required to be a high-level professional musician, the years of self-study and attention to detail—he applied that same skill set to become a masterful investor,” says Harvey Young, dean of CFA.

From previous gifts that he’d made, many people knew Avedisian had done well—but hardly anyone knew just how well until the magnitude of this year’s gift was revealed. A clarinetist donating $100 million?

“Ed has done just phenomenally as an investor,” Brown says with a smile. “And as in most cases for investors, unless they’re dot-com founders, so you can see their founder stock, you really don’t know. You just do not know. He’s done phenomenally well, and when you think about the generosity of giving $100 million and the other gifts he’s given, he’s just an incredibly generous human being.”

The friendship of the two, Chobanian and Avedisian, blossomed slowly in recent years. As adults, they saw each other occasionally—a wave or a friendly word when Chobanian attended a Boston Ballet performance, for example. They began to talk more in the 1990s, after Avedisian sent a donation for the Armenia Medical Partnership Program, along with a note to Chobanian. 

Chobanian says that when he retired from the BU presidency in 2005, they grew closer.

“I had more time and we started to socialize, and we became very good friends, and our wives became friends, as well,” he says. “He’s done unbelievable amounts in his lifetime. It’s amazing how he’s such a fine musician of the highest caliber, but still is able to become a philanthropist—I don’t think there are many musicians who can say that.”

The admiration goes both ways.

He “can’t do enough for people, and does it all with great ease and graciousness, really exemplary,” Avedisian says of Chobanian. “His personality has never changed—that’s just the way he is.”

Both men have been particularly determined to help their families’ homeland.

Chobanian joined the board of directors of the Fund for Armenian Relief. He also focused on improving medical education and care through a variety of programs, including training physicians, nurses, and other health professionals in emergency medicine and health-care management, and the development of medical residency and postgraduate educational programs in Armenia.

For his part, Avedisian became a trustee of the American University of Armenia, supported construction of its Paramaz Avedisian Building, named for his brother, and the new Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and Community Center, named for his parents. Recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Rhode Island in 2019, he is also a trustee for the Armenian Missionary Association of America and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

Shoulder to shoulder

At the late afternoon signing event last month, Chobanian and Avedisian arrived separately and greeted BU officials and others cheerfully. But they both lit up simultaneously when they saw each other, grinning as they bantered, lifelong friends making a difference in the world—together.

A few days later, after Chobanian had time to reflect on the naming gift, he said that he was beginning to appreciate the significance of it: “I think it’s wonderful for the medical school and the University. It’s still uncomfortable for me, but very satisfying at the same time, very beautiful.”

One last note about that new name for the medical school: that’s a lot of syllables to stitch onto the traditional spot on all those white coats that medical graduates receive. “We were trying to figure out how to fit it on the pocket,” Antman says with a smile. “It would have to be very tiny print.” The solution? Two lines on the left breast.

Richard Reidy (Questrom’82), vice chair of the BU Board of Trustees, who attended the signing event, told the small gathering that Avedisian’s gift is “a spectacular milestone in the history of Boston University.”

“There is an Armenian aphorism that says, ‘Once we give shoulder to shoulder we can turn mountains,’” Reidy said. “The members of the BU medical community are going to wake up every morning and turn mountains to reach the underserved, to innovate new treatments and breakthrough cures, and to never stop learning.”

By Joel Brown

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