Edgewater losing longtime volunteers

Posted on Sat, 08/01/2015 - 12:30pm

By Neil Warner

Ara and BettyWe all know people who are active in the community, with one organization or another. Several such people live at Malibu East. Yet, none exemplifies the meaning of “volunteer” better than Betty and Ara Mayian.

The Mayians were both born in Chicago and have spent the vast majority of their lives in the city, including many years as part of the Malibu East community. In fact, Betty was an original owner in 1971. Now well into their retirements, they are pulling up roots, moving to Sun City West, Ariz., this month to live near Ara’s older brother.

48th Ward Ald. Harry Osterman introduced a resolution in the Chicago City Council in late July that honored the Mayians as “longtime active and contributing members of the Edgewater and 48th Ward communities,” citing many of their individual accomplishments, and referring to them as being “among the most beloved and well-liked members of the community.”

Such praise is likely to induce a blush or two from an unassuming couple like Betty and Ara. They tend to downplay their participation in various organizations. In fact, when asked about being interviewed for this Dialogue article, Betty said, “I don’t know why you would want to write about us. Our lives aren’t that interesting.”

Au contraire. No less an authority than Bob Remer, the president of the Edgewater Historical Society, said of Betty, “She was one of the founding and continuing board members of EHS and has been extremely active and effective ever since. If you go to our website [www.EdgewaterHistory.org] and search under Mayian (both Betty and Ara) you will find 114 articles or mentions! That is no small potatoes.”

In recognition of her contributions over the years, EHS named her its first Volunteer of the Year and established an annual Betty Mayian Award for outstanding volunteer.

Betty was born in Chicago, then lived in La Grange for eight years and attended grammar school in Brookfield for three years before moving to the South Side for third through seventh grades. She spent eighth grade at the Mother of Sorrows boarding school, where there were only eight students in the graduating class. She graduated from the now-shuttered St. Joseph’s High School in the Back of the Yards, a mostly Polish neighborhood.

Betty’s father, who was much older than her mother, served in World War I. After the war he sold supplies to barbershops. Eventually he became paralyzed due to exposure to poisonous gas during the war and he was hospitalized for nine years. He died when Betty was 10.

Betty’s mother worked at General Motors Electro-Motive Division in La Grange – a sort of Rosie the Riveter type, Betty says – at a plant that produced marine diesel engines for the war effort. Betty’s father’s sister took care of her while her mother was at work.

Betty had a brother who was 11 years older than she, but he tragically died in a fire at age 13. Betty’s mother also had a stillborn baby.

Betty worked in data processing as a keypunch operator for several companies in the Chicago area, including Chicago Title Insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and her favorite employer, Weyerhaeuser. She learned computer programming (COBOL) while working at Washington National Insurance.

She moved to 6161 N. Winthrop, the same street where her soon-to-be first husband, Ed Gilman, lived. The couple married later on and became original owners of a condo at Malibu East, moving in before there was carpeting in the hallway. “We wanted to live on the lake, and there were so few buildings right on the lake then,” Betty said.

Ed was from Brooklyn and worked in the computer field. He passed away in 1979.

Although she didn’t join any committees or run for the Board during her early years at Malibu East, Betty says she interacted with her neighbors in other ways. Residents got together for dinners, and she and her neighbors on the floor painted their hallway. Back then, before Dunbar Builders turned the property over to the owners, there was no board of directors, so “almost every floor painted their own hallway or hired someone to do it,” Betty said.

She and Ara got married in 1985, and they joined the Social Committee in the ’80s after Sandy Chaet became the chair. Betty became a staff member of the Dialogue during the mid-to-late ’80s when Tom Beatty was the editor. After a hiatus from the Dialogue while the editorship changed hands several times, she rejoined the staff in the mid-’90s, along with Ara. In recent years Ara has been a delivery volunteer for the Dialogue and Betty has authored the Community Calendar each month and written many restaurant reviews. If you want to know about a neighborhood restaurant, just ask Betty or Ara.

For several years Betty has been instrumental in planning the Meet the Candidates Night, where candidates for the Malibu East Board of Directors can present their ideas and interact with owners.

Betty joined the Edgewater Community Council when the late Kathy Osterman was the president. Osterman wanted the ECC to conduct oral history interviews in conjunction with the Edgewater Centennial in 1986. Betty played a leading role in that effort, and afterward she left the ECC to help found the Edgewater Historical Society in 1988. She served five years as the EHS’ second president and spent 27 years on the EHS board. In 2002 EHS opened its museum, formerly a firehouse, at 5358 N. Ashland Ave. Among the many projects she worked on at EHS was coordinating the oral history interviews of immigrants to Edgewater, including several residents of Malibu East (goo.gl/lVoqSM), coming full circle from the project she worked on at ECC.

She used to read to children at the Edgewater library before it was rebuilt and policies were changed.

“If you’re going to live in a community, you should contribute to it,” Betty said, summarizing her service-oriented philosophy.

The activity she finds to be “the most fun” is performing old-time radio shows as a member of Those Were The Days Radio Players. The group performs at senior citizen retirement homes, libraries and other venues.

Betty served as a precinct election judge for “maybe 10 (primary and general) elections.” She says she may look into becoming an election judge again after moving to Arizona. “They might need another Democrat there,” Betty joked.

During her free time, Betty likes to read, especially mysteries and science fiction.

Unlike Betty, who is a lifelong Sox fan, Ara is a Cubs fan, having attended his first game in 1944.

Ara grew up in Chicago, living in several North and Northwest side neighborhoods, except for one year his family spent in Southern California. He attended the now-defunct St. George High School in Evanston. His father, who was Armenian, operated a fast-food grill in the city. His older brother, Steve, became an airline pilot.

Ara relates some colorful stories about growing up in Chicago, and the “friends” he hung out with. On one occasion, one of the “friends,” having taken umbrage at something another guy had said, threw the guy through the plate glass window of a restaurant they were walking past. Realizing he had done the restaurant owner a discourtesy, Ara recounted wryly, the friend went inside the restaurant and threw the guy back through the same window, onto the sidewalk.

On one New Year’s Eve, the group he was with placed a life-size stuffed buffalo on a streetcar as a practical joke. (Yes, there were still streetcars when Ara was growing up.)

“With his years of living in Edgewater, (Ara) has the best stories of anyone!” longtime friend Remer said.

Ara became a computer programmer, doing primarily application programming for mainframe computers. He worked for a number of companies, including the Board of Trade. He met Betty when he and a friend crashed a party at Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1980. After their marriage in 1985, Ara became part of the Malibu East community.

Ara retired in 1995. He now attends a men’s retirement club and regularly gets together with the guys he went to school with. He loves to read, mostly nonfiction, with a preference for biographies, science and nature. He also is a history buff, particularly as it relates to Chicago. He has been known to send historical notes to Geoffrey Baer, who hosts the “Ask Geoffrey” segment on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” program, during which Baer answers viewers’ questions about local history. And when Ara learns of an especially interesting historical nugget, he can hardly contain his enthusiasm in sharing it with others who might be interested, too.

Ara served as an usher at St. Ita Catholic Church, at Catalpa and Broadway, for more than 50 years, an incredible record of service by any standard.

“Ara knows more people (at Malibu East) than I do,” Betty said. “He’s more sociable.”

One thing is certain: Many friends will miss them after they leave for Arizona, and the community will be poorer in their absence.