Charles & Irene Churukian: The Role of Humility in Creating a Lasting Legacy

Charles J. Churukian and his wife, Irene Churukian, got married in 1969. They shared a long life full of stories and music and wonder, up until his death in 2011. But his story doesn’t end there, because Irene makes sure that it lives on. This is why she established the “Charles J. Churukian Memorial Scholarship” for the benefit of students in AUA’s Turpanjian School of Public Health.

Charles J. Churukian, lovingly known to many as Charlie, dedicated decades of his life to his work in healthcare. He was born in 1928 in Rochester, New York, to Christine and Joseph Churukian, both from Kessab, Syria. As a child, he grew fond of listening to classical music, and also developed interests in theology and chemistry, two subjects that may seem to be in perpetual conflict, but went hand in hand for Charles. After serving in World War II, he graduated from his studies in Theology at Gordon College, and then returned home to complete courses to become a certified histotechnologist, specializing in the use of special stains (dyes that help histologists see features of tissues).

Charles J. Churukian

For 40 years, Charles served as Supervisor of the Histochemistry Laboratory at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the Department of Pathology. As Irene tells us, “He pioneered the use of the microwave oven for staining procedures, for which he received the William J. Hacker Memorial Award. He also invented the Strong Fast Stain used in operating rooms for quick diagnosis and in cytology laboratories to determine the type of cells in various body fluids.” He was well known amongst his colleagues and the industry, with his work widely distributed amongst hospitals and educational institutions across the United States. In 2010, the National Society for Histotechnology presented Charles with the award for Histotechnologist of the Decade, honoring him for his contributions, which included the authoring or co-authoring of 55 scientific publications, and presentation of over 100 scientific lectures at conferences. When Irene shares these stories of her husband, it’s obvious how proud she is of him, humbly shying away from her own accomplishments to shine the spotlight on her husband but she also holds an impressive academic record and teaching career. 

Irene was born Irene Billings and spent her childhood in northern Pennsylvania. She graduated from Seattle Pacific College and began to teach at an elementary school in Western Pennsylvania, before settling in Rochester, New York, where she met Charles. She shares the story of how they were set up over dinner by two mutual friends who were both professors at the local college. They instantly hit it off and Charles began courting Irene, with their romance holding up to a long-distance sabbatical year at Temple University, where Irene was simultaneously earning her Master’s degree and teaching at the University’s Laboratory School for slow learners. They finally got married on August 2, 1969, a special day that Irene credits with her, then, newfound love for Armenian people and culture. She expresses that her “life suddenly opened to the ‘world’ because all Armenians are family and relatives. Being amongst Charles’ relatives broadened and enlivened my life in so many ways.”

Irene & Charles Churukian

Together, Charles and Irene Churukian dedicated their lives and experiences to helping others. With his theological background, Charles would visit the local prison to provide spiritual guidance to male inmates addicted to drugs and alcohol. He also volunteered at his local church serving meals to the homeless, and occasionally delivered sermons at the Open Door Mission. He and Irene were generously involved in charity work within the Armenian community, opening the doors of their home to Iranian Armenians suffering from the political crisis in Iran and also supporting children in Armenia, both financially and with words of encouragement for them and their families. 

“Charles was a very shy, quiet, unassuming gentleman that everyone just loved. He never needed to talk very much but people just warmed up to him in remarkable ways. He was always quite alarmed when people paid him attention. Perhaps that is the reason he was loved so dearly,” says Irene. His love of telling stories reverberated with those around him, especially children, and “his great ability to translate holy scripture into life situations made casual conversations with his peers meaningful and insightful,” his wife adds. 

Though Charles passed away in 2011, Irene knew that her husband would have wanted his philanthropic efforts to continue. She wanted to leave Charles’ mark in some way within the Armenian community, and having seen a brochure for the American University of Armenia and reading about the influences and contributions being made by AUA graduates, she decided that supporting AUA would be an excellent avenue to accomplish that goal. Thus, she established the “Charles J. Churukian Memorial Scholarship” in an effort to continue supporting young Armenians and leave a lasting legacy in her husband’s honor.

When asked how Charles would have felt about the establishment of the scholarship, Irene says, “He would be more than surprised if he knew his name might empower the future generation of Armenians. But knowing him as I do, he would be grateful that his influence might live on for many generations to come.” 

Indeed, his influence, and humbly, hers, will live on through the accomplishments of the scholarship recipients at AUA.