John Ludwig Sarkissian, former tutor at St. John's College in Annapolis, 82

July 17, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John Ludwig Sarkissian, a retired St. John's College tutor and well-known raconteur, died of heart failure Monday at his Annapolis apartment. He was 82.

Mr. Sarkissian was born and raised in Chicago, the son of parents who fled Turkey during the Armenian persecution. In 1942 he left the University of Chicago, where he was studying biology, to enlist in the Army.

Mr. Sarkissian served in Italy as a military administrator and was later shipped to the Pacific Theater, where he was a code breaker stationed in New Guinea.

After the war, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology by the late 1940s.

As research biologist specializing in genetics, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the Institute of Human Heredity at the University of Bologna in Italy.

He began his academic career as an instructor in biological and physical sciences at the University of Chicago and later taught the subject at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, now Columbia College in Chicago, the University of Indiana and University of Illinois.

In 1963, he joined St. John's as a tutor, as faculty are called at the Annapolis college, where for the next two decades, until retiring in 1984, he taught biological evolution through dissection.

In addition to teaching in Annapolis, he also taught at the college's campus in Santa Fe, N.M. After retiring, he worked as a docent at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Mr. Sarkissian was a voracious reader and a gifted conversationalist who became a well-known figure during his more than four decades of living in Annapolis.

"He was a character -- not in the bad sense of the word -- and was so well-known around town because he was so interesting," said Elliott Zuckerman, a retired St. John's colleague and longtime friend.

"John was a splendid storyteller who told them to his classes with a great flourish and excitement. He read a lot of science, history and biography and was able to enliven any subject matter with anecdotes and was really very gifted at this," said Jon Lenkowski, a St. John's tutor and friend of many years. "His former students had such a fondness for him, and they would hunt him down at school, his home or at the Little Campus Inn."

For years, his hangouts were two storied Annapolis venues, the now-gone Little Campus Inn on Maryland Avenue and Buddy Levy's Capitol Drugs on West Street, where regulars used to meet to discuss the news of the day, politics or enjoy Sunday morning breakfasts while completing the New York Times crossword puzzle.

"He had a wide circle of friends and listeners, and he'd hold forth with stories about World War II, movies, politics and books. He used to talk about Saul Bellow, whom he knew, who was part of a group that met in a Chicago restaurant or bar," Mr. Zuckerman said.

"He was a very gregarious and vivacious guy who loved seeking people out at the Little Campus Inn, which he called The Office. He was a regular there and enjoyed calling on the phone, `I'll see you at The Office," recalled Mr. Lenkowski.

"He didn't have a mean bone in his body, and even if he didn't like somebody, he showed them no ill will or spirit toward them. And no matter how mad he could make you, he was still likable, and you just couldn't hold a grudge against him," Mr. Lenkowski said.

About 12 years ago, Mr. Sarkissian had a hip replacement, and as his health began to fail he was forced to give up driving and had to use a walker. Eventually, he was confined to his book-lined Annapolis Gardens apartment, where he spent his time reading, smoking cigarettes and entertaining occasional visitors.

His marriage to the former Flor Rubio ended in divorce.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to his former wife, with whom he remained close, Mr. Sarkissian is survived by a daughter, Julia Oaten of Annapolis; and a brother, Vincent Sarkissian of Chicago.

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