LEWISTON, Maine — Saturday was a sad day for Erin Reed at the Trinity Jubilee Center — and for everyone who knew Jerry Der Boghosian.
Der Boghosian, 91, passed away Friday afternoon on his way to an appointment at the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta, Reed said Saturday.
"We have lost our Jerry," Reed, the center's development director, said of the lovable, caring, religious, patriotic and sweet man who touched thousands of lives.
She said Der Boghosian, a World War II Navy veteran, was either driving to or from Togus on Friday when his car went off the road and he died.
Reed said everyone who works at the center was in mourning for Jerry and sharing memories of the heart and soul and comedian of the Jubilee Center, as Der Boghosian was known.
"It was a pretty tough morning here," Reed said. "We're all still trying to process this. His son, who lived with him, called me yesterday evening and told me about Jerry's death."
She said she had spoken with Der Boghosian on Thursday — the last time she talked with him — and he told her he had an appointment at Togus on Friday.
"He was the most popular man in Lewiston," she said. "He was a big kid at heart. He did modeling for donations, and got a real kick out of it, but I don't know where he got the red hair."
Reed was referring to a photo of Der Boghosian sporting a bright-red, long-haired wig under a wide-brimmed straw hat and hugging two women that was on the center's Facebook page.
She said he drove a newer model, bright-red Ford Mustang and had worked at the center since its inception 23 years ago.
"He comes in from 9 to 12 every day and he's the only person here who has his own desk," Reed said. "I mean, not even the executive director gets his own desk, just Jerry."
Der Boghosian, the center's office assistant, would write thank-you notes and do the bank deposits.
"He was a character," Reed said. "When people would go past him, he'd stick his foot out and trip them and when parents of children weren't looking, he'd give the kids candy. There are a lot of kids here and he was like their grandfather."
She said Der Boghosian, who was the son of Armenian refugees, was a well-known singer who loved to sing and dance and would do so with Somali women and other refugees at the center.
"People love him," Reed said. "He's been here so long that he's seen people go through hell and back. People like to come in and see him. He's Armenian, so he addresses you in Armenian and you're not very sure what he's saying."
She said Jerry was married five times, toured with a band, did just about everything, and celebrated his 91st birthday last month.
"He kind of had his nose in everything," Reed said. "He would keep disposable cameras with him at all times, so our entire office is covered in his photographs. Anyone who walked in, if they struck his fancy, he called them over for a picture, and they couldn't say no, because he was deaf or hard of hearing, but it was kind of selectively hard of hearing."
She described him as an endless source of encouragement and inspiration, and as a brother, father and grandfather to everyone at the center.
Reed said Der Boghosian attended St. Michael's Church in Auburn and spent his summers going to the beach in Wells in his convertible Mustang every weekend to visit churches there. He also "dated" Reed.
"Jerry and I have a standing dinner date on Wednesdays every other week," she said.
And it didn't matter where they went — whether it was to the Chinese buffet or Simones or Antigoni's in Lewiston or Denny's in Auburn — everywhere they went, half of the patrons knew Der Boghosian.
"He was great," Reed said. "People were always shocked to hear how old he was."
According to Sun Journal archives, Der Boghosian grew up in Haverill, Mass., where he said he slid by in high school on his music. He played in the school band and paid his cousin a quarter to do his homework. After graduation, he joined several big-band music groups, playing violin, stand-up bass and singing, and worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for two decades.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 at age 20, serving aboard the USS Canberra. In 1946, in the 90-day break between the Navy and a return to work, Der Boghosian grabbed his instruments and squeezed in a bus tour.
Der Boghosian, of Lisbon, was adjutant and treasurer of American Legion Post 22 in Lewiston, chaplain for VFW Post 9150 in Lewiston and historian for the Franco-American War Veterans Post 31 in Lewiston. He's also founder of the USS Canberra Reunion Association and a member of the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine.
"He wasn't slowing down," Reed said. "He made his rounds every day. We thought he would be around forever. He used to joke that we couldn't get rid of him."
A message posted Saturday morning on the Jubilee Center's Facebook page bespoke the staff's fondness for Jerry.
"Today his desk chair is empty and the office is quiet and we are heartbroken," it stated. "We are incredibly lucky to have known him all these years and the Jubilee Center would not be what it is today without him. We love you, Jerry D. Rest in peace."
Jerry DeWitt, commander of the American Legion Post 22 in Lewiston, said he's known Der Boghosian for 30 years.
DeWitt said that on Saturday morning at the American Legion State Convention in Bangor, Der Boghosian was recognized as a lifelong member of several veterans organizations.
"He was my adjutant for 34 years," DeWitt said. "We paid our respects to him today. He was more like a second father to me, and I'm 67 now. Everyone looked up to him. He was a little rough around the edges, but he was just a darned nice and good man."
DeWitt said that on Memorial Day last month, the legion presented Der Boghosian with a plaque, recognizing him for a lifetime of service to veterans and the community, state and nation.
"I'm glad we had the opportunity to recognize him," DeWitt said. "I've been talking to him for the last year and trying to get him to train someone to take some of his positions. He'll definitely be missed."
Rex Rhoades, executive editor of the Sun Journal, said Saturday evening by email that Der Boghosian "was a great friend to me and to all of us in the Sun Journal newsroom."
"He visited us at least once a week and would always make his way to my desk," Rhoades said. "There was no telling what would come next: a song, a story, a memory of World War II, a lecture on flag etiquette or an observation on life in Lewiston, all delivered loud enough for the entire newsroom to hear.
"He was an original and a colorful character, and we will all miss him," Rhoades said.
DeWitt said Der Boghosian was very involved with youth and street ministry with The Jesus Party in Lewiston and volunteered for it every day.
"He helped anybody," he said. "He didn't care who they were."
Danielle Lacasse of Lewiston said Der Boghosian was one of the oldest and longest members of The Jesus Party, founded and run by her parents, the Rev. Doug and Sonia Taylor.
"My dad said he always prayed with the kids and told them stories that happened in the war and about the things that he had seen," Lacasse said.
She said she'd known Der Boghosian since she was a child. Der Boghosian would come to her school and tell the children stories by the flagpole, she said.
"On Saturday mornings, he would go to Schooner Estates and he sang for the people and he was as old as they were," Lacasse said. "But he was not a very good singer. He was a great guy, real funny, and quick-witted, a very caring and giving guy. He was such a sweetie."