Rev. Harry Maghakian is remembered as someone who helped transform the care of Minnesotans with mental illness. What began as a program for homeless veterans needing a place to go evolved into the nonprofit People Incorporated, one of the Upper Midwest’s largest community mental health services providers.
Maghakian died May 15 at age 94, with family members at his bedside. But his work to help people with disabilities live with hope, dignity and purpose continues today.
His work began at Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Paul in 1962, in what was then a struggling neighborhood. He and his wife Judy bought a home in the community and dedicated themselves to helping others. In an interview for a People Incorporated publication, Maghakian said “Together with this unique congregation, we discovered a line that gave us our direction. ‘The agenda of the church must be written by the world.’ We all took this seriously and worked to bring new life to this aged building with banners, color, a message of hope and belonging. We were energized by the people who came in, looking for a place to call home.”
“It was as quiet revolution. We didn’t know it at the time,” the publication stated. “Setting up in an inner-city church basement so that men in a nearby board house would have a place to go. Vets who were sick with what we now know was mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol … We didn’t know much about mental illness, but we found out.”
A nearby boarding home for homeless veterans was a catalyst. “We saw them wandering around in a daze every day, therapeutically addicted,” Maghakian said in an interview. “We opened the basement, set up some chairs, a coffee pot, and some ashtrays, and took down the No Smoking signs. Taking down the walls that isolated us from them. They shared their despair. Their voices and stories touched the very meaning of what it means to be human beings in community. They became our mentors in helping shape a program that cares about the dignity and common good of everyone.”
Four other Presbyterian Churches joined the effort. Maghakian described the start of People Incorporated as a “people power” movement right from the start. Volunteers helped found a halfway house for men in recovery. Board members rolled up their sleeves and helped with everything from painting walls to hiring staff.
“We chose our name without a lot of thought,” Maghakian recalled when People Inc. reached its 40th anniversary. “We said, ‘Well, we’re dealing with people, what about ‘People Incorporated?’ We had that ‘just do it’ kind of attitude.”
“But it really says something about who we are. We saw people being treated as less than human, and came together to help, adding in others along the way.”
In an interview with the Pioneer Press, current People Incorporated CEO Jill Wiedemann-West said, “Harry left a huge footprint in terms of working with vulnerable individuals in our community.”
Today People Incorporated is a nonprofit organization that serves people with mental illness in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. It now operates more than 60 programs including children’s programs, crisis residences, programs to help the homeless, residential programs, treatment services, case management, and in-home health services. It serves more than 13,000 people each year.
Maghakian had a remarkable life story. He was born a few years after his parents fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey during World War I. They settled in California. As a young man he enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought with the 10th Armored Division, earning a Purple Heart. He went into real estate after the war, married and had two children. But he was called to the Presbyterians ministry and was ordained in 1962. That change of heart led him to the Summit-University neighborhood.
People Incorporated helped launch many programs that are still in place today. Some have been spun off to other entities. These include the Loft Teen Center, which is now housed with Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, and the Liberty Plaza housing program, which created more than 170 apartments. More housing for people with mental illness and sober housing became possible, by buying up and renovating homes. A clinic, children’s programs and other outreach are also to Maghakian and his fellow volunteers’ credit.
“We opened the door of the church,” Maghakian said in a video on the People Incorporated website. “We had free cookies and coffee. We got ash trays there for them to smoke, which is against my principles, but we said that’s an
enticement of how you minister. But that’s where it started.” Maghakian and his wife Judy traveled the world after his retirement in 1990. They continued to serve people in need. He finally retired from active ministry in 2014.
He is survived by his family. Services have been held.