Joseph Sarkis Arakelian
Joseph Sarkis Arakelian, of Mokena, Illinois, (formerly of Oak Forest) passed away on September 1, 2020, following a valiant 2-week battle with the coronavirus. He was 91 years young.
Joe was born on February 10, 1929 in the Saint-Antoine district of Marseille, France to Kevork and Nectar (Nersessian) Arakelian. When he was ten years old, his father, a respected painter, died an untimely death leaving his mother with four children, including a newborn sister. At the same time, World War II broke out and the Germans occupied France. The family experienced difficult times along with the rest of the community. Joe would recount how they persevered, in no small part because of his parents’ experience surviving the Armenian Genocide. His mother made sure the family was fed and healthy through smart preparation and imaginative acquisition of essentials.
Joe attended school in Marseille up to the age of 13. As the only son, Joe felt compelled to discontinue school to support his family. As an enterprising youngster, he sought various ways of earning money, including buying and selling goods that were in short supply, and harvesting wheat during the growing season. He later described this as the hardest physical work of his life. Joe ultimately apprenticed as a shoemaker and quickly plied his trade at shops in the Armenian quarter of Saint-Antoine. It was through these early experiences that he came to live by the motto “you never give up” in anything you pursue.
The Armenian community was an important aspect of Joe’s life in France. As a young man he was a member of the Nor Serount (New Generation) youth group. Despite the post-war challenges, Joe’s memories of those days were of great fun with his Armenian buddies, each with comical nick-names, and Saturday night dances in the town square. This is where he perfected the Spanish dance, the Paso Doble. Joe was a skilled dancer with a charismatic personality. He spoke of an inspired moment when he confidently leapt onto a stage to dance with Charo, who was performing with her husband, band leader Xavier Cugat.
Seeking opportunity after the war, Joe moved to America in 1950, joining his uncle in the West Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. Through French-Armenian circles, Joe met Elisabeth Benneyan, a pretty young woman from Valence, France who came to Chicago one year earlier. Betty, as he called her, worked at the soda fountain counter of Steinway Drug Store. Joe sat on a corner stool for hours until the end of Betty’s shifts for a chance to walk her home. He soon won Betty’s heart, and she became his bride on January 26th, 1952.
Four months later, Joe drove from Chicago to Ellis Island, New York to welcome his sister Marie Claire Nalbandian, her husband Jean and their two young sons to America. The remaining members of his family arrived in the years that followed. Less than a year into their marriage, Joe joined the U.S. Army. He served for two years during the Korean War at various posts in the U.S. and Europe. On his return, he enthusiastically resumed life in Chicago with his wife and growing family.
During their 68 years of marriage, Betty and Joe were blessed with four children, Annette, Linda, Denise, and Kevork. He was affectionately called Pépé by his eight grandchildren, Richard and Simone Varadian, Sarkis and Sevan Sultanian, Mesrop, Raffi and Sona Borekjian, and Grace Anoush Arakelian. Over the last four years Joe delighted in his role as great-grandfather to Jack and Louis Sultanian.
The evolution of Joe’s career was influenced by his sense of adventure. After initial stints as a factory worker, photographer, and television repairman, he concluded that he was not cut out to work for others. Joe became an unstoppable entrepreneur with limitless talents and a hunger for knowledge in different fields. With an abundance of passion, determination and fearlessness, Joe carved his own path.
Buoyed with the support of his hard-working wife Betty, Joe set forth into a 66-year series of business ventures in and around Chicago. Among them, Babette Shoes, Chicken La Belle Restaurant, Sarkis Commercial Kitchen Builders, Sarkis and Son Construction, Sarkis Estates, and Old Mill Pond Plaza. It gave Joe great pleasure when, as his son Kevork came of age, he chose to work alongside his dad.
While raising the family, it was important to Joe and Betty that their children be involved in the Armenian Church, their youth groups and community activities. Even during their restaurant years, which were the most difficult with 14-hour days and 7-day work weeks, they made sure the family remained strongly connected to their church and Armenian heritage.
When local churches asked Joe to lend his expertise and resources, he was always ready. He helped with various building projects, such as the installation of commercial kitchens and heating and cooling systems. Joe was especially proud of his contributions to the paved brick walkway leading to the prominent Khatchkar outside the doors of Sts. Joachim and Anne Church. In 2001, the granite Khatchkar was commissioned to a renowned artisan from Armenia. Joe and Betty were honored to host him during his weeks in the U.S.
Joe maintained close ties with local and federal politicians who were instrumental in supporting issues of importance to the Armenian community. He avidly supported U.S. Congressmen Lipinski and Sangmeister. For civic gatherings, Betty launched into action, baking hundreds of trays of her famous Armenian and French confections. They attended many political gatherings, including an event for then-U.S. Senator Obama leading up to his presidential campaign.
Joe loved life. He woke each morning charged for the day, excited about his lofty plans for the future. There was always work to do, which was just how he liked it. His morning routine began with a hearty farmer’s breakfast of two eggs and great mounds of vegetables from his cherished garden. Gardening was his heaven on earth. Tending to his seedlings gave him, in equal measure, a thrill and a sense of peace. That is also how he felt about his children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. He stayed actively involved with his family members. Spending time with them, whether in person or on the phone, invigorated Joe, and, vice versa. He followed their achievements in school, career and personal lives. His advice on life was solid, urging each to work hard, follow their passions, and above all, to create a life that made them happy.
If you met Joe, you remembered Joe. He was gregarious and interested. He lived his life vigorously and unafraid. He was bigger than life and fully engaged. It was with that same immensity that Joe loved his wife, his family, his friends, and his community. Though gone from this world, he will remain forever in our hearts. Until we meet again.
We are living in a time of social distancing, so we understand those that do not feel comfortable attending the services. We love and appreciate all of our family and friends for their kind words and support during these challenging times.
Visitation Friday, September 11th from 4 until 9 p.m. with Dan Gark Service at 7:30 p.m. at the KERRY FUNERAL HOME & CREMATION CARE CENTER, 7020 W 127th Street, Palos Heights.
Family & Friends will gather Saturday, Septmeber 12th directly at Saints Joachim & Anne Armenian Church, 12600 S. Ridgeland Avenue, Palos Heights, service 11:00 a.m.
Interment Saint John Cemetery,20200 S. Wolf Road, Mokena.
In lieu of flowers, contributions to the Saints Joachim & Anne Armenian Church, Memo: Joseph Arakelian would be appreciated.