Seeing Yale fencing coach Henry Harutunian in person, one might think he was 60 or 65. Hearing his booming voice speak about his love for Yale, he might sound 40, and watching the energy with which he conducts practice five days a week, he would seem around 18 to 22, the age of his fencing students.
Never would one guess that Harutunian is about to turn 82 — the exact age of Payne Whitney Gymnasium — and is now entering his 45th year as the head of the Yale fencing program. His tenure at the helm spans seven Yale presidencies, five NCAA fencing titles for Yale and the entire length of the women’s fencing program, which he himself created in 1974.
The former American Olympic coach credits his job at Yale, which he willingly works at from 5:30 a.m. to after 6:30 p.m. each day, for keeping him young over the years. A religious man who hails from Armenia, he said that it is important to enjoy the years that God has given him.
“For me, everything comes naturally,” Harutunian said. “I just like life, I like young people. My life is my team.”
Harutunian’s office, the only room on the seventh floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium other than the fencing room, is an organized mess that encapsulates his life: busy and loaded with memories.
Nearly one hundred photos of his past teams and the children of his alumni hang behind his desk, while a complete fencing workshop — all the equipment of his team, tools for building the weapons and even a sewing machine for fencing outfits — is dispersed around the office.
Harutunian is currently in the midst of using his tools to make an épée from scratch for Dillon Lew ’16, who is switching from foil to epee this year and did not have the appropriate equipment.
He stores and takes care of all of the team’s equipment, he said, because his students should not need to think about fencing when they are not in the Yale fencing room.
“I ask, from October 15 to March, for two hours a day, you come to fencing and forget everything else,” Harutunian said. “At 6:15, you leave, and unplug from fencing. [Take care of] your studies, social life, whatever else in your life, because that’s your profession and future. Your parents are paying for education, not fencing.”
During those two hours a day, Harutunian runs practices with as much intensity and energy as the fencers themselves, captain Hugh O’Cinneide ’15 said.
Above all else, O’Cinneide said that Harutunian has taught him when to draw the line between a lighthearted tone and serious one.
“His coaching has really given a boost to my love of the sport, because he is so passionate about it,” O’Cinneide said.
Harutunian’s philosophy for coaching has certainly proved successful. His women’s team has won three NCAA titles, all between 1982 and 1985, while the men’s team won a championship each in foil and sabre in the early 1990s.
“[Harutunian] has made my experience on the Women’s Fencing team one of the best parts about my four years at Yale,” women’s captain Lauren Miller ’15 said in an email. “His long-standing dedication to the team means a lot to us and our alumni and I know that we wouldn’t have the team we have today without him.”
Just 11 years after his immigration to America, he began working with its national team, eventually coaching in the 1984 Olympic games.
Harutunian has produced this success at Yale — over 500 wins in 44 years — despite many of his most successful athletes never having touched a piece of fencing equipment before college. One notable example, David Jacobson ’74, was a football player in high school before Harutunian approached him at Payne Whitney Gym in his freshman year at Yale.
Harutunian told him to report to the fencing room the next day to try the sport. Jacobson proceeded to earn all-American honors in fencing and join the American national team.
As much as Harutunian’s former students owe him for his teachings in fencing, he also has much for which to thank them, as it was one of Harutunian’s pupils who brought him to Yale in the first place.
Harutunian moved to the United States in 1966 to become a conversational Russian instructor at Harvard. Howard Daniel ’66 was Harutunian’s graduate student. After discovering Harutunian’s coaching talent and Yale’s need for a revitalized fencing program, he decided to connect the future coach to Yale.
Harutunian visited the campus and was awestruck by its beauty, especially the size of the Yale fencing room despite the small membership of the team. In 1970, after three years of coaching at Brandeis, he eventually was offered the fencing job at Yale.
Forty-four years later, the former Harvard instructor remains one of the greatest supports of Yale as an institution. He frequently referred to past and present administrators as “brilliant,” picking out one name, A. Bartlett Giamatti, as the best Yale president he has witnessed. Giamatti’s picture also hangs on the filled walls of Harutunian’s office.
The Yale fencing team’s season starts Nov. 7 at Penn State.