The U.S. has been called a nation of volunteers. Port Washington lends credence to that claim. And one of the things that makes Port Washington so great is the number and quality of our volunteers. One of Port’s busiest volunteers is Dolores O’Brien. There is not enough room in this column to list all the organizations that get or have received her time. But here are a few locally that come to mind: Manorhaven Tree Committee, League of Women Voters, St. Stephen’s vestry, the Port library, Order of St. Luke Healing Ministry. Any organization that has had her help is the better for it. Dolores is sharp as a tack and smart as they come. She and her husband, Bob, have lived in Port 17 years. Both have retired: he, as a computer scientist; she, from her own public administration consultancy after 30 years. As if she didn’t have enough to do, she and her husband, Bob, took up kayaking. Neither has fallen into the drink yet.
Dolores’ grandparents were Armenian, but her mother and father were born in the U.S. Her mother’s decedents were from Lebanon; her father’s family were from Armenia. Her father’s father was a priest in the Orthodox Church. Her mother was one of 10 children. Dolores lived most of her childhood in Astoria but from her high school years on, she lived in North Bellmore. She has a younger sister, Diane, who has no children, which makes Dolores and Diane the sole survivors of the Kazanjian family in America.
Dolores’ father was a chemical engineer who worked for Felton International Flavors and Fragrances. “Specifically,” said Dolores, “he worked with fragrances. In case you’re wondering, there are natural fragrances—that come from flowers like lilacs and lily of the valley—and synthetics, made from mixed chemicals.” Why are so many synthetics used, I mused aloud? “You know how many rose plants it would take to make rose oil?” She shot back (she had me there—making rose oil is not one of my things).
I’m curious. I ask a lot of questions. Dolores very patiently gave me the skinny on the machinations of Felton’s sweet-smelling business. Here goes: Each of Felton’s fragrances maintained exclusivity with the brand it was created for. For example, a fragrance created for Chanel could never be used for any other brand. The labeling and packaging were done elsewhere, which frustrated Dolores. Young and curious, she wanted to be in the know. But she might as well have been working for Coca-Cola. (Coke is fanatically secretive about its formula.) “My father,” she said, “would never tell me who any of the fragrances were for.” He used to ask her what she was going to wear on a date and he would give her a suitable bottle. “But it was in a bottle with no label,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Dolores headed for Rutgers University. “I’ve been writing one way or another ever since I was a little girl. I wanted to be a journalist, which is why I chose Rutgers. They have an excellent journalism course—and I got an excellent composition teacher whom I found out later was both a letch and a lush. I barely got a ‘C’ in this course.” So when asked whether the letch made a pass at her, she answered, “He probably did but I didn’t realize it because I was such a naive young child. So I met with him and asked him what could I do? He said, ‘Ms. Kazanjian, some people can write, some can’t, and you just can’t.’ He took my dream away, and I decided that was not for me.
So I switched to a Spanish major. And I’ve had a wonderful career. I wrote, but it was for professional reports, technical reports, research reports—that kind of writing.”
Smart cookie that she is, a bachelor’s degree didn’t satisfy her. Next stop, NYU, where she earned her master’s degree which, in turn, led to her first teaching job. That was NYU, too. “Most things that happened to me in my career happened through sheer luck.” Fifteen years into her career, Dolores garnered her second teaching job at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University (one of the premier criminal justice colleges in the country). “The highlight of my teaching,” she said, “was when I was teaching at John Jay. The college was asked to establish a similar college for criminal justice in Puerto Rico with a police department of its police academy. I was one of the faculty sent down there,” she said, “to create the new college. It was wonderful. We had it up running in about three months. Then we turned it over to the Puerto Rican government.”
She continued, “I knew that I wanted to go to some Latin-speaking country after graduation. That wasn’t enough. I took Spanish and Latin as a major in college. I had written my thesis on José Marti. [He was the George Washington of Cuba; he led the revolution that won Cuba’s independence from Spain.] It was a natural. So, it was off to the University of Havana for me.” Any hesitation? “No.” How about when she was ensconced in college? “It was wonderful! I loved it. There I was in a foreign country, independent,” she said. What did her parents think about her going to school in Cuba? I asked. “They were really excited for me at first,” Dolores said.
Being a confirmed eater, I had to ask about the food. She didn’t mince words: “It was awful. I stayed in the student boardinghouse and our daily menu was beans and fried bananas, but we had chicken every other Sunday. Basically my scholarship came with a lump sum, so I had the money and I could spend it as I wanted to. And I wanted to, but I didn’t want to put money out-of-pocket if I could avoid it. So, I saved it wherever I could. It was fun.”
Dolores said she didn’t panic when Castro was readying his revolution. “But when skirmishes were escalating close by and the revolution actually began,” she said, “curiosity gave way to caution, and I returned to the good old USA without a second thought.”
Once back in New York, Dolores landed a job at the international division of Life Magazine, where Henry Luce reigned supreme as publisher of the Time Life Inc., which includes Fortune Magazine. (For a time Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, resided in Sands Point. She was a congresswoman, ambassador to France, playwright, politician and socialite.) “It was a wonderful job,” said Dolores. “I worked seven years for them in advertising production.” She said the process started with her. “I would do a mockup and tell the writers and graphic artists what pages I wanted for what ad and what pages they could have for the rest of the magazine.
“I remember the time the European advertising agency for one of our most valuable accounts sent us a magnificent photograph of a classic male sculpture. There was only one thing wrong: We were a family magazine and the male sculpture had no clothes on.” Now they were in a bind. How do they not offend their prize client without offending some of the readers of the magazine? “My boss called a meeting of our staff to discuss what we should do,” Dolores said. “During the discussion I suggested we send back a copy of the photograph with a short note asking: ‘Is something missing?’”
From 1956 to 1963, Dolores worked for Time Inc. From 1963 to 1968 and 1969 to 1975, she worked for New York City government, which means she probably couldn’t avoid being immersed in politics up to her knees. She was a member of the Lindsay administration staff and, about New York Mayor John Lindsay, she said, “I liked him. I loved him. He was a good and decent man who wanted to do the right thing.” But politically he did the wrong thing: switched political parties (Republican to Democrat). In 1978, she formed her own company—KCI—management consulting, research, information services and some nonprofits. Public administration, however, is her principal field
It would not be in error to say that Dolores O’Brien is a bona fide whirling dervish—and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Something’s missing. And as a functioning romantic, I figured it out. Love had not walked in. (Thank you, George and Ira Gershwin.)
Say what you want about politics, it can have another purpose besides getting someone elected. Take our friends Dolores and Bob. There they were at The Lions Head, the hangout of the Greenwich Village Democrat politicians. There had been a special election, and the Democratic faithful had gathered to bend an elbow together. After last call, although everyone else left, Dolores and Bob were sitting there and silently, still digesting the numbers that have been posted. Bob broke the silence: “You want to get married?”
Three years after he proposed, in 1980, they were married in what Dolores describes as a medium-sized wedding. “Had we been married at the usual age,” she said, “there would have been a cast of thousands or limited to the immediate family. It had been horribly hot for two weeks, so we were ready to have all the festivities outdoors.
The morning of the wedding, the catering manager called me up and said I was making a very bad mistake. It was going to rain, and I had better move everything inside. Ugh, I thought to myself, it would be like a cookie-cutter wedding. I don’t need to be hearing this the morning of my wedding. But, we got a break. No rain. It was not fancy, just something that everyone enjoyed; it was just something that suited us.” Dolores’ father gave her away. “I didn’t realize that he never had given up hope,” she said. “Well he was so thrilled, he insisted on paying for the wedding. I told him it was not necessary because Bob and I were both working. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘It’s the thing to do.’ But being Armenian, he had to make sure that he got the best price.”
They honeymooned in Bermuda, and upon their return, shared Dolores’ Greenwich Village apartment. After 10 years of marital bliss, in 1990, they responded to a Hyde Real Estate agency ad and had the pleasure of being sold a house by one of Port Washington’s legendary assets and leading lights of that era, Charles Hyde (Bucky) Walker. What a great guy.
Dolores said she will never forget her first Christmas with the family.
“It was memorable,” she said, “but I don’t know if it’s printable. It actually would make a great scene in a Woody Allen movie: Bob’s kids having temper tantrums and refusing to open their gifts; Bob’s mother looking on with disapproving fish eyes and clenched jaw; my mother getting drunker by the minute; my father in a quiet rage and his father in an overt rage; Bob, bewildered and powerless; and me, deciding never to do this again.”
Did Dolores give up her independence easily? “Over time, minds change,” said Dolores, smiling, “and as one grows older, it’s very wonderful to have a life to share. What I had not realized way back then,” she said, “It was great all those years where I answered to no one but myself. But now that I’m older I can’t imagine what it would to be like all by myself.”
Amen. Who would want to be?