Profile @Guelph


Whether at work in the UC or at play on his boat,
Nick Boyadjian is a man on the move


When you work at a place as large and diverse as U of G, you meet a lot of people you never really get to know. You stand in coffee lines together, share elevator rides, exchange hellos as you pass in the halls. Familiar faces in familiar places.

Sometimes, you're lucky enough to get a chance to know them better, to learn something intriguing that gives you a glimpse of who they really are. This is one of those opportunities.

You may already know Nick Boyadjian. But even if you've never spoken to him, if you've worked or studied at U of G in the last couple of decades, chances are you've run across him.

He's the tall guy with the dark hair and beard who rushed past you in the University Centre. He was probably off to check on this or that, to set up chairs for a special event, to unlock the doors in the early morning hours or lock them late at night.

As special events co-ordinator for the UC's building administration, Boyadjian is something of a permanent fixture in the campus hub. But it's a status he never strived to achieve. He started out working in the UC part time when he was in university, mixing sound and setting up equipment for dances and concerts. Before he knew it, a few grey hairs had crept into his beard and somehow managed to turn it from brown to mostly silver - a sure sign that 26 years had ticked by.

Longevity has its advantages, though. Boyadjian has had a front-row seat for many milestone events at U of G. And there are lots of tales to tell. For example, there was a time when the place to be in Guelph was Peter Clark Hall. Elton John once held a press conference there when he visited U of G to attend a Maria Muldaur concert (Boyadjian got to meet him). And the lineups at the pub used to be so long every night that a second "holdingbar" had to be opened.

Boyadjian will share the stories with you, but first you have to find him, and that's often a difficult task. He's always on the move. Don't bother looking for him in his office on the UC's second floor, unless, of course, you've made an appointment to meet him there.

"I'm never here," he says with a sweeping gesture across the room. "I live in the building."

That explains the clutter-free work space and nearly empty shelves, not what you'd expect from someone who's been around so long.

What you will find in the office, however, is a hint of one of his passions. A large photo of a canopy-covered steamboat hangs on the wall. It's one of only a handful in Ontario, and Boyadjian is its proud owner.

It's more than just a rare boat to him, however. It's a coal-fuelled connection to his childhood, his family's roots in Egypt and Switzerland, and to a generation of people who remember a time when steam powered the world. "I was always fascinated by locomotives, anything that ran on steam," he says.

As a child, he'd visit his grandparents in England during the summers, and they'd take him to see steam locomotives as often as he liked. "I thought they were beautiful things to look at - there is such romance in them. Steam locomotives are just like big works of art to me."

Back at home in London, Ont., Boyadjian's parents indulged his interest by buying him toy steam trains, and he'd spend hours playing with them, making pint-sized puffs of smoke.

"I even used to go out in the fields and watch the steam-run threshing machines. The smell of the coal burning, the sound of the steam - I was hooked."

The other constant in Boyadjian's childhood was boating. His father, Peter, was born in Jerusalem but grew up in Egypt, where he was a member of the Cairo Yachting Club and would regularly sail on the Nile. Later, in Great Britain, his father belonged to the Royal Ocean Race Club. So it was only natural that he'd pass on that great love to his son.

It would be depriving the reader not to include at least a snippet of the story of how the elder Boyadjian went from sailing in Cairo to working in London, Ont. The son of a prominent business man, Peter Boyadjian went to England to attend the University of London, where he met and fell in love with Susan Wiesendanger, who was from Switzerland. But Peter Boyadjian was being groomed to take over the family's photographic and pharmaceutical supply company, and Wiesendanger wasn't ready to get married, so he returned to Egypt alone.

But it wasn't the Egypt he remembered. It was 1956, and the Suez crisis had just begun. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had declared martial law and seized control of the Suez Canal Company after the United States and Great Britain decided not to finance construction of the Aswan Dam.

"Nasser was getting rid of everything British in Egypt," Nick Boyadjian says. "My grandfather's company had ties to the British, and my grandmother was British, so Dad, my aunt and my grandmother were forced to leave, and my grandfather had to stay."

The family moved to England, where Boyadjian's grandfather was able to join them two years later. Peter Boyadjian reconnected with Wiesendanger and they married.

"All of a sudden, the future that Dad thought he had was gone," says Nick Boyadjian. "And post-war England was not a happy place to be. Dad was casting about for work, and they decided to immigrate to Canada, although Dad had no idea what he'd do."

The family ended up in London, where the elder Boyadjian went to work for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing as a purchasing agent. But he never lost his love for the water. He took his son and daughter sailing often and would go on extended excursions alone, including a four-month stint to Newfoundland.

So Nick Boyadjian grew up in London playing with steam toys, sailing, taking fencing lessons (he was a two-time junior champion) and playing the piano. He started taking piano lessons when he was five, passed the Royal Conservatory exams to the Grade 10 level and started teaching piano to children when he was 15.

"I did that until I was 18, and I worked at night loading trucks. Then one day out of the blue, Dad comes up to me and says: 'Do you want to go to university?' I told him I didn't have enough money saved, and he said: 'If you want to go, I'll pay for it.'"

Boyadjian decided to take his father up on the offer immediately, in case he changed his mind just as suddenly. Fall classes were already well under way, and the only university with a music program that accepted winter-semester students was Guelph. It was 1978.

Once at U of G, Boyadjian switched from music to physical geography and went six straight semesters. But he used his music skills to land that first job in the UC. Soon after, in 1980, he met his wife, Chris (now a graphic designer for U of G) in the Bullring. She was also a student, working on her second degree.

"After I graduated that year, I was offered a full-time job in the UC," says Nick Boyadjian. "I liked it here, I had this new girlfriend, so I figured I'd stay for a while." He and Chris married in 1981. After a few years of marriage and three children, Boyadjian started to think about getting a boat of his own. It was more of a dream, in truth, not something he could really afford. "So I told myself I'd look for a steamboat, because I figured I'd never find one."

Not long after, he went to a boat show in Toronto - just for fun. "One of the sellers there asked if he could help me and I said: 'I don't think so, I'm looking for a steamboat.' He just happened to have one back home for sale."

Boyadjian went all the way to Gravenhurst to see it. "I remember she was out in a shed, sitting up on this platform, with a price tag on her I couldn't afford. My only thought was: 'I have to have her.'"

He did not, however, know the first thing about running a steamboat. "I'd played with all those steam toys as a child, so I knew the basics, but that was about it," he says with a laugh.

That was 14 years ago. He's a master now, of course, and the boat has a permanent spot in the family's driveway. At six feet wide and 32 feet long, it is hard to miss (or hide).

He takes the boat out regularly during the summer, to family cottages and even to Guelph Lake. It needs only 20 inches of water to operate and travels at a whopping top speed of six miles an hour. Even his father, used to much faster and bigger boats, comes along for rides.

No matter where Boyadjian goes, the steamboat draws a crowd. "I just pull the whistle, and people come looking." The boat seems to especially touch a soft spot in older people. "They smell the coal, hear the whistle, and it does something to them. They get really emotional."

He smiles while recalling a time he had the boat out on Lake Ahmic during a fireworks show. "Every time there was a spectacular display, I'd blow the whistle. This old chap who lived way across town woke up because he kept hearing the whistle. The next day, he had his son drive him all over the place looking for the boat. They eventually found us. He comes right up and tells me: 'There hasn't been a steamboat on this lake since the 1930s.'"

Boyadjian invited the man and his son to join them for a ride. "He didn't want to come out. He just wanted to find us so he could see the boat. He said it brought back childhood memories. He wanted just to look at it and remember, and to talk to someone about his experiences."

The steamboat photo that hangs in Boyadjian's office reminds him of moments like that. The precious times when people find a connection and catch a glimpse of each other's lives, of who they really are.

Retired land resource science professor Ward Chesworth is leading a symposium titled "From the Ground Up: The Importance of Soil in Sustaining Civilization" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week in Seattle. He will also discuss "The Evolution of Soil" at the gathering.

Prof. Robert Brown, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, was an invited speaker last month at the "First International Congress: The Role of Urban Agriculture and Urban Forestry in the Sustainable Development of Cities," held in Lima, Peru. He spoke on the social, cultural and environmental value of urban green space and about the need to create "places," not just "spaces."

A number of faculty in the School of Fine Art and Music are currently exhibiting works across Canada. Prof. Susan Dobson's solo photography exhibition "Open House" is at Tatar Gallery in Toronto. FASTWÜRMS contributed to a touring exhibit that runs until Feb. 22 at the Edmonton Art Gallery. Prof. Will Gorlitz has a solo exhibition of new paintings at Galerie René Blouin in Montreal until Feb. 21 and is part of a group show at the K-W Art Gallery until March 21. A solo exhibition of Prof. Monica Tap's paintings runs until March 7 at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. Works by Prof. John Kissick and MFA graduate Jordan Broadworth are at the Elora Centre for the Arts until March 7. Prof. Laurel Woodcock's "(play/pause/repeat)" continues at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre until Feb. 29.