From humble beginnings
in Fresno to the State Capitol
Born in Fresno, California, Walter Karabian is the oldest son of John Karabian and Zevart Shishmanian. Karabian’s paternal family arrived in Fresno in 1896 from Bitlis, and his maternal family were from Dikranagert, Turkish occupied Armenia.
Karabian graduated from Roosevelt High School in Fresno and later continued his education at the University of Southern California, where he earned a Bachelors of Arts in History, a Masters Degree in Public Administration and a Juris Doctorate from USC Law School. He was also elected Junior Class President and Student Body President becoming one of the most successful graduates in that era.
After completing his education, Karabian served as Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County for two years. Soon after, Karabian became an active political figure in the Democratic Party and moved directly into politics. In 1966, he was elected to the California State Assembly. He was one of the youngest men to ever be elected to the Assembly and only the third American-Armenian to be elected to public office in the history of the United States.
While a member of the Legislature, Karabian published various legal articles and gained a reputation as a significant legal author as well as a Legislator. He made substantial contributions to the development of California law concerning crime, prison reform, education, civil rights, free speech, and the preservation of endangered species in California. Notably, Karabian used his influence to bring awareness to the Armenian Genocide in California. In 1967, at a time when most people were not aware of the Genocide, Karabian authored the first resolution commemorating the Armenian Genocide in the State Assembly.
In 1972, Karabian introduced California’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment which was designed to guarantee equal rights to women. Karabian also authored the first Freedom Act protecting sources of news information, the Endangered Species Act, which preceded the National Endangered Species Act and legislation requiring child IQ testing be completed in the child’s native language.
In 1972, he was selected to serve in the powerful position of Majority Leader. At the time, he was only 33 years old and became the youngest Majority Leader in California’s history. Later, he would become a member of the important Rules Committee.
After leaving the California Legislature in 1975, he established and led his Los Angeles law practice for 45 years. Karabian was selected as the co-chairman of a trade delegation that visited Cuba during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and served as the legal counsel for a legislative delegation to the Philippines in 1979. Karabian was also selected to speak on behalf of a number of Armenian organizations relating to Armenian grievances and objectives before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
Karabian has had a lasting impact on the political landscape of America, particularly in California. Politically sharp and insightful on public policy, he has the unique ability of identifying promising individuals and supporting their candidacy for office. To name a few, he has played a significant role in the election and rise of Hubert Humphrey, who Karabian served as Southern California Co-Chairman for the Democratic presidential nomination for President of the United States; Bill Lockyer, who Karabian first approached to run for the California Assembly and who would later become Attorney General and State Treasurer of California; California Governor Edmund G. Brown in his several campaigns for office; and former Los Angeles City Mayor James K. Hahn. A central figure in Los Angeles city politics, in 1992 he was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley as “Facilitator” to merge two critical city agencies into what would become the powerful Metropolitan Transportation Agency that oversees bus and rail lines.
It would be remiss to underestimate the widespread political contributions that Karabian has made. His political legacy includes helping to establish what is now a formidable Latino political coalition in California. When he was a Democratic leader in the Assembly, Karabian mentored many future members of the legislature, including Richard Alatorre and Art Torres. These individuals and those that followed would later form the Latino Caucus which generations of Latinos still look to as the beginning of their ascent into political life. It is from these coalitions that Karabian helped foster that propelled the next generation of individuals into elected office including several candidates from the American-Armenian community.
Karabian’s dedication to Armenian causes is well-known throughout the world and has had a lasting impact over the Armenian community. In 1979, he became a founding member of the Armenian Film Foundation and served as Vice Chairman of the Board for 30 years. The Armenian Film Foundation has secured interviews of eyewitness Genocide survivors and preserved rare documentary footage of Armenian history, an invaluable asset to our Nation from a cultural and evidentiary perspective.
As an attorney, Karabian was a founding member of the Armenian Bar Association, which today is an international organization composed of hundreds of Armenian attorneys and judges throughout the world that addresses the legal concerns of the Armenian community.
Known for its political networks and legal aptitude, his law firm has extended its time and resources to various institutions throughout the Armenian community by providing legal representation to ANCHA (American National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians), the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, AGBU, Holy Martyrs Armenian Ferrahian High School, Armenian Mesrobian School, and the Arshag Dickranian Armenian School where Karabian’s children attended.
In 1988, Karabian married Laurel Dickranian at St. Sarkis Armenian Church in London. They were blessed with a daughter Madeline Araxie who is a Senior at USC double majoring in Italian and Television Writing. His other children are Benjamin Karabian who is the City of Los Angeles Supervising Deputy City Attorney for Central Criminal Trials and Katharine Sarine Giovanardi. After 28 memorable years of marriage, Karabian lost his life’s partner when Laurel sadly passed away in late 2014. Laurel was the youngest daughter of benefactors Mr. and Mrs. Arshag and Eleanor Dickranian of Beverly Hills whose resourcefulness and dedication has had a positive impact on nearly every major Armenian organization locally and abroad.
The Karabians have been generous contributors with endowments to the Armenian Church, St. Nersess Academy in New York, St. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School in Jerusalem, the Hovsepian School in Pasadena, the Arshag Dickranian School in Los Angeles, the Armenian Cultural Foundation, the United Armenia Fund and others.
Dedicated to the Armenian Church, the Karabians have also been steadfast supporters of the oldest Armenian institution known to our Nation. They have hosted His Holiness Vasken I and Karekin I, Supreme Patriarchs and Catholicos of all Armenians on Pontifical visits to California. They have also prevented several important pieces of Armenian religious artifacts from being acquired by non-Armenians by personally purchasing them, only to then donate them to Armenian organizations so they are preserved and appreciated by all.
The Karabians have been longtime collectors of Armenian art and antiquities. In the 1980’s, they purchased Miniatures, Gospels, Encyclicals, a 6th Century Lectionary, and the Hazarian Collection of Kutahya. Appreciating the collective interest that would be generated by these pieces, the Karabians have donated these collections in their entirety to the Armenian Church, the Arshag Dickranian School Library, and the entire Hazarian Collection of Kutahya, tiles and religious objects from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries to the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Boston. “The Walter and Laurel Karabian Kutahya Collection” is on permanent exhibition.
Continuing with their interest of collecting Armenian art, Laurel and Walter Karabian were collectors of the famous painter Ivan Aivazovsky. They have the largest collection of Aivazovsky paintings west of New York.
In addition to various gifts, Karabian has also generated substantial support from his non-Armenian friends and colleagues for Armenian causes. For example, Karabian raised $100,000 for the Armenian Church Earthquake Fund and nearly $150,000 for the Armenian Film Foundation, all the while educating his friends about the history and plight of his people.
Following the devastating 1988 earthquake in Armenia, all Armenian organizations in California joined together in a historic coalition to rush aid to our crippled Nation. Karabian was chosen as Chairman of the coalition which came to be known as the United Coordinating Committee for Armenian Earthquake Relief.
Continuing his life-long dedication to service, he is a Trustee of the George Ignatius Foundation. Since 1985, Karabian and his Co-Trustees of the George Ignatius Foundation have been responsible for donating discretionary funds to Armenian organizations totaling over $5 million dollars.
For his tireless work to improve the lives of Armenians in California and for his life-long contributions to Armenian causes, in 1997 Karabian was bestowed with the St. Gregory the Illuminator Medal, the highest honor in the Armenian Church, by his Holiness Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians. This honor was preceded by an announcement by then-Primate Vatche Hovsepian that Karabian had made substantial donations to the Western Diocese Church for the construction of the altar for St. Leon’s Cathedral in Burbank, and to the Diocese Endowment Fund.
Karabian has served on the USC Law Center’s Board of Councilors, is a life member of Legion Lex at the USC Law School, a life member of Scapa Praetors at the School of Public Administration, a life member of USC’s Presidential Associates, a member of the Widney Society for the million dollar donors at USC, and is a Pepperdine University Life Endowed Associate.
Karabian fondly recalls his family history in Fresno, especially his family’s neighbor, the famous author and playwright William Saroyan with whom Karabian enjoyed a lifelong friendship.
William Saroyan said, “It is simply in the nature of Armenian to study, to speculate, to discover, to invent, to revise, to restore, to preserve, to make and to give.” Perhaps this quote best describes his friend Walter Karabian and other American-Armenians of his generation that led when there was no friend to follow and helped when there was no expectation of receiving anything in return.