To a determined woman, pride was in her family name


Kalajian in 1972 with her children

She loved the name she had been born with: Arax Marion Kalajian. It spoke of her Armenian roots, her family history. And now that her marriage to George F. Egner had ended, the 28-year-old mother of two wanted to reclaim it.

But the country's laws were only starting to reflect the changes of the modern women's movement, and the judge overseeing her 1972 divorce was unpersuaded. He told her a name change could lead to harassment for her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. In court, he seemed to suggest she was ignoring her children's best interests.

So started Arax Kalajian's accidental path as a pioneer.

In a letter, she told the judge she had searched her own motives and thought a lot about her children. "I ask you to understand," she wrote, "that I am Arax Kalajian; I started to realize her promise again three years ago, and my being Arax Kalajian has meant only good things for my children."

The judge turned her down six weeks later.

But as she studied philosophy -- then a male-dominated field -- at Trenton State College and raised her family in Ewing Township, N.J., her case, Egner v. Egner, was taken up by a new women's rights litigation clinic at Rutgers University, and a higher court consolidated it with two similar cases.

Kalajian was happily surprised in April 1975 when the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled in her favor. The decision came as part of a wave of cases nationally that established a woman's right to keep her name in marriage and return to it after divorce. "These early cases clearly made a difference in day-to-day society," said lawyer Nadine Taub, who represented Kalajian.

For Kalajian, who died April 20 at her Annandale home at age 64, it was a personal victory. "She felt affirmed, I think," said her sister, Kerrith McKechnie of Toms Brook, Va. "She really didn't believe it was going to happen."

The way the family story goes, it was Kalajian's father, Peter, who first learned of the ruling, as he read the newspaper at his kitchen table in River Edge, N.J. Arax was his middle child, dark-haired and dark-eyed, the one who could hold her own in political discussions, the one with the rich, memorable laugh. At 19, she had left her studies at Gettysburg College to marry her high school sweetheart, Egner, who had just graduated from West Point. The marriage lasted six years.

The day the family patriarch learned of her success, "he was absolutely delighted," McKechnie said. "She had the name Kalajian again. He was very proud of her."

Still, Kalajian did not see herself as an activist. Her style of feminism was largely intellectual and particular to her life. She believed in women doing as they wanted. "She may have been the brightest person in the school, and she just had an eager mind," said Connie Taylor, her closest friend at Trenton State.

Kalajian's can-do spirit started early in life. In grade school, she once knocked at the door of a home in her New Jersey suburb where Mickey Mantle spent his summer. When he answered, Kalajian boldly asked for an autograph as two less daring boys hid in the bushes.

The baseball legend obliged. "She was the only one in town who ever got his autograph, as far as I know," said David Shreiber of Bethesda, a friend of hers since third grade.

The family at Kalajian's second wedding with Bob
Terzian, fourth from left.

As Kalajian raised her own children, they accepted her unconventional choices. Her daughter, Samantha Teixeira, who lives in Arlington, recalled that her grade school teachers raised an eyebrow every time her mother sent in a note for a school absence. They asked: Who signed this?

"I always had this little script memorized in my head," Teixeira recalled. "I would say, 'My parents are divorced, and my mom took back her maiden name.' "

As for the harm the divorce judge had predicted, Kalajian's son, John Egner, said: "Oh, heavens, no." Taking back her name, he said, "just seemed normal to me."

Kalajian rethought her name in 1977, as she prepared to marry her second husband, Bob Terzian, a lawyer who shared her Armenian heritage. The family had by then had moved to the Washington region. "I told her it didn't affect my identity either way and she should do whatever she felt she wanted to do," Terzian recalled.

Kalajian kept her family name. "She wanted to be a person in her own right, and she didn't want to be Mrs. Somebody Else," he said. The Kalajian name came to mark her professional life, too, when she joined John Coyne to form Coyne Kalajian, a computer consulting firm recognized as one of the Washington region's 50 fastest-growing technical companies in 1988.

Work faded as Kalajian grew ill from multiple sclerosis in the mid-1990s. In later years, she often did not speak, and so her husband sometimes asked her to remember family names. She took pleasure in each, including her own. Arax Kalajian. It made her smile.

Donna St. George writes about families and children for The Washington Post. She can be reached at

PHOTOS: Courtesy Robert Terzian

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