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People power: People Incorporated founder Rev. Harry Maghakian lived a life focused on others

Photo by Tony Nelson
From an event this spring, left to right: daughter Sally Maghakian O'Keefe; wife, Judy; People Incorporated CEO Jill Wiedemann-West, the Rev. Harry Maghakian, and son David Maghakian.

A true man of the people, the Rev. Harry Maghakian always kept an eye out for others.

It was his way, recalled his daughter, Sally Maghakian O’Keefe. “No matter where we were, my dad always, and I mean always, asked the person who was helping us their story. He was interested, authentically interested.”

And Maghakian’s interest in others extended to everyone equally — not just those in power, Maghakian O’Keefe said: “It was the server, the janitor, the doctor, the dentist, the service person, the paraprofessional, the politician, the human. No joke: This guy was authentic. He walked his talk — every single day.”

When he died on May 15 at age 94, Maghakian left behind a lasting legacy that arose from his singular interest in the lives of others. People Incorporated, the nonprofit he founded in 1969 after hearing the stories of a group of troubled men who spent their nights in a local rooming house and their days loitering in the alley near Maghakian’s church, has grown to become Minnesota’s largest mental health organization, with 700 employees serving 14,000 clients and a $50 million annual budget.

In 1969, Maghakian’s church was Dayton Avenue Presbyterian, a large stone building at 217 Makubin Street in St. Paul. The men from the rooming house, he discovered, were mostly down-on-their-luck Vietnam veterans. Maghakian invited them to spend time in the church. He brewed a pot of coffee, set out a plate of cookies and bought a couple of ashtrays. The men took him up on his offer, and Maghakian began to learn more about their struggles.

After Maghakian spent time with the men, an idea blossomed.

“That was the beginning of something much bigger,” Maghakian O’Keefe recalled. “The men were fighting addiction. They had what we’d call now PTSD. They were struggling. My dad realized that we needed to create something for people like these guys.”

The more Maghakian learned about the men’s lives, the more he knew they needed an array of supports that they weren’t getting in the rooming house or on the street. He reached out to area churches and ended up recruiting five other Presbyterian congregations to support the start of People Incorporated.

Getting at the heart of the men’s stories was no small achievement, said Jill Wiedemann-West, People Incorporated chief executive officer. Anyone could have dismissed them as a lost cause. Many already had. But once Maghakian learned their stories, he didn’t turn away. He worked to build a program that could offer them help.

“There was more going on with these guys than you could see on the surface. In some cases they didn’t even make a lot of sense. They struggled with managing their mental illnesses. Today we might say that they were self-medicating. Anyone could have dismissed them. But Harry thought, ‘What are we going to do to help these folks?’ It all happened because he reached out. He wouldn’t have known anything about these guys unless he’d invited them to come into his church and talk to him.” 

Humble beginnings

In the late 1960s, there were very few organizations like People Incorporated. Because he couldn’t find any nonprofits in Minnesota that were providing the kind of all-encompassing mental health and addiction services he wanted this new organization to provide, Maghakian did some research, identifying groups he’d want People Incorporated to emulate. A few mental health organizations on the West Coast had set up group homes for their clients. This sounded like a good idea, so he planned a trip west.

This enthusiastic, can-do approach was typical of Maghakian, said Tim Burkett, former People Incorporated chief executive officer.

“When Harry decided he wanted to found People Incorporated, he didn’t know anything about group homes or treatment for mental illness or chemical dependency,” Burkett said. “So he went out to the West Coast to learn about how they ran group homes out there. With the little bit of knowledge he’d gained on his trip, he came back here and did what he could to start this nonprofit. Someone needed to make it happen.” 

Before he became a minister, when he was a young GI just home from World War II, Maghakian opened his own real estate company in Los Angeles, so he knew how to buy and sell houses. He found a few old homes in St. Paul, and with the support of the other churches, purchased them and converted them into halfway houses.  

“What grew from those homes was programming and support,” Maghakian O’Keefe said. “From that they started working on other supports, and the organization just grew and grew.”

A 1960s Maghakian family photo
Courtesy of the Maghakian family
A 1960s Maghakian family photo in front of Goodrich Avenue Presbyterian, one of three churches at which Maghakian preached.

It is important to put Maghakian’s achievements in context of their time, said Barbara Nichols, former People Incorporated vice president of community relations. When Maghakian invited the men into his church and then set out to find them a home, people didn’t talk about mental illness and addiction in the way we do now. Individuals like the men who got him started on this journey were considered “drunks” or “bums,” and most people tried to pretend that they didn’t exist.

In that way, Maghakian’s eyes-open approach was radical.

“When I look back to when Harry started People Incorporated 50 years ago,” Nichols said, “I think, ‘What a remarkable man. What a vision.’ Just because you have mental illness doesn’t mean you are half a person or not part of society, but that’s what so many people thought back then. All along Harry knew that people with mental illness and addiction are people just like everyone else. They can make it if they are just given a fair chance.”

That was the way Maghakian approached everything in life, Wiedemann-West said.

“Harry had an ability to home in on people, particularly people in need. He’d look at the social construct and find a way to not just reach out to the individual but to also create larger ways to fill in the gaps and make their lives better, not just for a minute, but for a much longer time. That was truly his whole life.”

‘A man full of energy’

A notoriously energetic man, Maghakian was a great storyteller who could keep a roomful of people entertained with tales of his life and the lives of others.

Burkett first met People Incorporated’s founder when he had just been hired as the organization’s CEO.  

“I wanted to learn more about our history,” he said. “Our director of development told me about Harry, so I reached out to him and we went to lunch.” Maghakian was still working as a minister at the time, and People Incorporated was a small, struggling nonprofit. Burkett wanted to see it grow, and in Maghakian he found the perfect resource.

Nichols was the person who told Burkett about Maghakian. She knew he’d inspire his new CEO. “Harry was a man full of energy,” Nichols said. “He energized people.”

Nichols was right, Burkett recalled: “Harry had a really inspiring story to tell. He was very charismatic. He was a real sparkplug, a stocky, energetic Armenian guy with silver hair. He told the story of People Incorporated’s founding story really well. I began to invite him out to tell that story to potential funders. He agreed, and he with my urging, he did it over and over again.”

Because Burkett felt that more Minnesotans needed to learn about People Incorporated and the services it provided, he and Maghakian eventually developed their own dog-and-pony show.

“I wanted to get our light out from under the bushel basket,” Burkett explained. “We began hosting events where Harry would tell the story of our origin and I would tell about my vision for the organization. He did that for a few years. Eventually, thanks to Harry’s help, People Incorporated became four or five times as large as it was when we began.”

Maghakian’s enthusiasm isn’t the only thing that helped People Incorporated grow, Burkett said. The organization was founded at the right time, when a larger cultural shift toward increased understanding of mental illness and addiction was under way, inspiring individuals and funders to support nonprofits that address these issues.

Just as he and Maghakian began their speaking tours, “people were starting to de-stigmatize mental illness,” Burkett said. “It was just the right time. I had Harry as the inspirational founder who could encourage people to feel compelled to help. He loved doing that. He was a natural preacher.” 

Life of purpose

The son of Armenian immigrants who came to America to escape the genocide in their home country, Maghakian had a natural enthusiasm and sense of caring, his daughter said. His father died of a heart attack when he was just 48, leaving a wife and three children. Maghakian, who was 18 at the time, was left to support his mother and sisters. During World War II, he fought on the front lines in Germany, taking shrapnel to his right arm and earning a Purple Heart.

Maghakian was a 36-year-old confirmed bachelor working as a youth minister in Los Angeles when he met his future wife, Judy.

“They went on just one date” before deciding to get married, Maghakian O’Keefe said. The couple wed in 1959, and had their first child, son David, in 1960. Maghakian O’Keefe was next, born in 1963.

From the start, Harry and Judy Maghakian had a seamless bond. They both attended seminary in San Francisco. When Harry was called to ministry at a church, Judy was part of the package: She ran the children’s and family ministry while Harry worked the pulpit.

“They were inseparable, my folks,” Maghakian O’Keefe said. “One breathed in. The other breathed out.”

Maghakian entered the ministry when he was in his 30s, and he dove in with what his daughter can only describe as his signature, focused enthusiasm. After 11 years at Dayton Avenue Presbyterian, he went to work as a Presbytery executive in Detroit. After five years behind a desk, Maghakian returned to Minnesota to become a minister at Valley Community Presbyterian Church. In 1990, he retired, but retirement didn’t stick. After less than a year’s break, he became a minister again, this time at Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

“He retired from that church at age 92,” Maghakian O’Keefe said. “He just loved his job.”

When he wasn’t working, Maghakian loved to travel. He felt that meeting people from other cultures and hearing their stories was a way to build understanding. In 2003, Judy, with his help, founded ARK For Peace, an international peace-building organization devoted to creating understanding among young people through international travel and exchange.

Starting a nonprofit from scratch to meet a need was typical Maghakian behavior, Wiedemann-West said. He had an innate belief that good things can happen when good people step up.

“It was Harry’s personality, being a first-generation U.S. citizen, a member of the Greatest Generation, a real optimist. He was a solution-focused individual. A lot of times today we get overwhelmed by what we experience and we can’t get beyond the problem. Not Harry. He was one of those guys who thought, ‘What is the solution? How do we fix it?’ He didn’t perseverate on the potential barriers, shortfalls and complications.”

That might be because Maghakian was a helper at heart, his daughter said. Just as when he extended a hand to that group of men outside his church all those years ago, he remained focused on a larger purpose to the end of his life.

“My dad had an authenticity about him,” Maghakian O’Keefe said. “He had this ability to see people as people, not as their illness. His life was all about answering the question: ‘How do we take care of one another on this earth?’ He had this vision and he lived his life like that.”

A memorial service for Harry Maghakian will be held June 9 at New Life Presbyterian at 965 Larpenteur Ave., Roseville. Visitation begins at 10 a.m., followed by a service at 11 and a luncheon at noon.

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