A lifetime of service

Emeritus Science Instructor Rich Aaronian receives Founders’ Day Award 

Sarah Pruitt '95
May 19, 2023
Betsy Fleming, Rich Aaronian and Bill Rawson

 In his 49-year career at Exeter, Richard S. Aaronian ’76, ’78, ’97 (Hon.); P’94, P’97 embodied the ideal of a boarding school educator, inspiring and nurturing generations of students in and out of the classroom. Aaronian taught in the Science Department and served as department chair, headed three dorms, led the Community Conduct Committee and other key groups, coached junior varsity boys hockey and helped coach junior varsity baseball. In May the Academy honored his exemplary service by presenting him with the 2023 Founders’ Day Award.

“Your boundless appetite for life and the natural world, your innate decency, and your devoted care for your students made you one of the school’s most beloved instructors, coaches and dorm parents,” Trustee and General Alumni Association President Betsy Fleming ’86 said while delivering the award citation.

“Family shaped my life,” Aaronian said as he accepted the award before a standing-room-only crowd of students, alumni, current and emeriti faculty and trustees in Assembly Hall. He spoke of his childhood in Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts, with his parents, both of whom emigrated from Armenia; three older sisters and a clan of relatives. The first in his family to attend college, he discovered a passion for ornithology at the University of New Hampshire. Later, while pursuing his master’s at UNH, he saw an index card on the departmental office door advertising a job as a part-time science instructor at the Academy.

Soon after joining Exeter full time in 1971, Aaronian proposed adding courses in marine biology and ornithology to an expanding science curriculum. He taught both classes for decades, shepherding students to the New Hampshire seacoast to collect marine organisms and to Plum Island in Massachusetts to track migratory birds, among other destinations. Colleagues credit him with building the place-based field trip program that is now integral to Exeter’s Science Department. Named the Harlan Page Amen Professor of Science in 1999, Aaronian received major awards including the Rupert Radford Faculty Fellowship Award, the Brown Family Faculty Award and the George S. Heyer Jr. ’48 Teaching Award. 

Aaronian spoke of working alongside his wife, Peg, as dorm parents in Amen Hall and Bancroft Hall at the outset of coeducation at Exeter. “It doesn’t surprise me that we have a special relationship with members of those early classes in the 1970s,” he said. “In fact, I’ve always felt that we grew up together.”

Aaronian’s dedication to students extended to the rink, where he became a fixture as coach of the junior varsity boys hockey team for 26 years. He later helped coach junior varsity baseball for a decade. Over his long career, Aaronian built lasting connections with hundreds of Exonians, many of whom enjoyed his legendary bird walks and credit their love of birding to him. In honor of his retirement in 2020, the class of 1978 (one of three alumni classes to claim him as an honorary member) established the Richard S. Aaronian Summer Field Studies Internship Fund, which supports an internship each year for an Exeter student at the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island in Maine. 

In closing, Aaronian spoke collectively to students past and present as he recounted some of his fondest Exeter memories: “Listening to you at the table help a classmate understand a difficult concept in introductory biology. Watching your face when you understand that concept. … Having a student ask for a pair of binoculars for a graduation gift. Sharing your pride when you identify a bird on your own — maybe even from its song.”

Conceived by Principal Stephen G. Kurtz and established by the Trustees in 1976, the Founders’ Day Award is given annually by the General Alumni Association in recognition of devoted service to the Academy.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

The Richard S. Aaronian Summer Field Studies Internship Fund was established in 2021 to honor Richard Aaronian’s service to the Academy. The purpose of the fund is to support one student internship during the summer for research and field studies. To make a gift to this fund, please go to www.exeter.edu/giving and in the "Additional comments" box indicate that you designate your gift to the Richard S. Aaronian Summer Field Studies Internship Fund.