Most philanthropists probably expect to see their own name on a building after making a sizeable donation to a public institution. But Edward Avedisian, a retired clarinetist and philanthropist who in August donated $100 million to Boston University’s medical school, chose instead to honor a childhood friend.
Renamed on Thursday, the Boston University Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine puts first the name of a former BU president and respected cardiologist who Avedisian has known for most of his life.
“Who knows me? Nobody,” Avedisian, a graduate of BU’s College of Fine Arts, told the Globe, adding that he had preferred not to have himself included in the medical school’s new name at all. “All right, so I made a few dollars, but who knows [Chobanian] in the medical field? An awful lot of people. ... [His name] enhances the prestige of the university going forward.”
Chobanian, for his part, was touched by the gesture, but equally humble. He refused to have his name on the school alone, and the two men reached a compromise in honoring both.
“I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the gift and and by the fact that my friendship with him, which was very special, also led to a very special contribution to the institution,” said Chobanian, who also previously served as the School of Medicine’s dean. “I know it will be great value to the medical school.”
Half of the donation money will be used to provide need-based financial aid and scholarships to future medical students, said Robert Brown, president of Boston University. A quarter will be used to support endowed professorships, which honor accomplished faculty and fund research. The final quarter will be used to “keep the school at the forefront of teaching and research,” according to a statement from the university.
“We’ve had very few gifts in our history of this magnitude,” Brown said. “It will support generations and generations of medical students.”
Brown said the donation could encourage medical students to pursue important specialties, like primary care, that don’t attract as many doctors as more high-paying fields.
“This is really critical in today’s world because because medical school is expensive, and [students] take on significant debt. That ends up influencing the specialties that they will go into,” Brown said. “If you can give need-based financial aid, you’re more likely to have more medical students that become internal medicine doctors, or pediatricians, or family medicine physicians, which I think is really exciting.”
Avedisian, 85, built a successful career as a clarinetist for the Boston Pops and Boston Ballet Orchestra after graduating from BU’s College of Fine Arts. But he also has close ties to BU’s school of medicine through his life-long friend, Chobanian, 93. A Rhode Island native, Avedisian said he and Chobanian were close neighbors as children and bonded over their similar heritage — both of their parents escaped Armenia during the genocide in the 1910s and then resettled to build a new life in Pawtucket.
The two men reconnected later in life, after they both attended Boston University and jump-started their radically different yet similarly prosperous careers. While Chobanian was the dean of BU’s School of Medicine in 1988, for instance, Avedisian was applying the risk-evaluation skills he developed during his musical career to personal financial investments — earning him hundreds of millions of dollars and allowing him to become a philanthropist.
Avedisian said his family set him up for success by emphasizing the importance of education. After considering his personal connections to BU and its medical school, he felt donating $100 million to the School of Medicine was the perfect way to give back to an institution that taught him so much and aims to serve disenfranchised communities, he said.
“I’d like to follow Andrew Carnegie’s idea ... and die broke,” Avedisian said, referencing the wealthy industrialist who famously donated his fortune toward education and world peace. “I put [money] out there for people that need help. And BU is a university that is willing to pursue those ideals.”
Above all, both he and Chobanian said they wouldn’t have been as successful as they were without the dedication, encouragement, and support of their families. Chobanian said he recognizes the hardships his parents endured while fleeing a genocide and raising a family during the Great Depression. And without them pushing him to pursue an education, he may never have become the world-renowned cardiologist he is today, he said.
“I personally feel like my parents were the reason I’ve done what I’ve done,” Chobanian said.
“Our parents told us, ‘hey, get an education.’ So that was the call, and this was our response,” Avedisian said. “They’re the heroes, not us. That’s the way I look at it.”