Born: April 8, 1934;

Died: April 15, 2021.

VARTAN Gregorian, who has died aged 87, was an Armenian-American academic, philanthropist, and fund-raiser who was most famous for saving the world-famous New York Public Library from decay and economic destitution.

But one of his other great philanthropic interests was Scotland: he was the long-serving president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the charitable fund that had been established in 1911 by the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and he was instrumental in establishing the Andrew Carnegie Lectures at Edinburgh College of Art.

He was a special advisor to Culture and Sport Glasgow (now Glasgow Life), which runs the city’s culture and leisure services, and he was also a trustee of businessman Sir Tom Hunter’s foundation. Vartan Gregorian, said Sir Tom, was a reminder that you should never be the richest person in the graveyard.

Gregorian’s links to Scotland grew from a meeting with Sir Tom when the Scot was considering how best to use the wealth that came from his sale of Sports Division in 1998.

Speaking to The Herald in 2004, Sir Tom said it was a simple case of good old Scottish brass neck. ‘’I became interested in Carnegie,’’ he said, ‘’and since Vartan was the president I just wrote and asked if he would mind if I popped in to see him.” After establishing his foundation, Sir Tom asked Gregorian to become a trustee.

In the years that followed, Gregorian was a frequent visitor to Scotland and it was Sir Tom who introduced him to Bridget McConnell, wife of the former First Minister Jack McConnell, who was running Glasgow Life at the time. He became a part-time advisor to the body and treated the job with typical self-deprecation.

“Let me quote Lord Chesterfield, “ he once said. “Having expertise, knowledge or experience is like having a pocket watch. Wait until someone asks what time it is before you tell them. Don’t go round town saying, ‘Do you want to know what time it is?’ So my role is that: to give advice when asked, and when appropriate.”

The reason that Gregorian’s advice was so frequently sought was his extraordinary CV. Not only was he credited with raising $327million to save the New York Public Library, but he was also a senior academic at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former president of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island – the first foreign-born person to serve in the role.

He chaired the panel that selected the design for the World Trade Centre memorial, and he had more than 70 honorary degrees, including an honorary LLD from Aberdeen in 1998.

He was born in the Armenian quarter of Tabriz, in Iran, to Samuel and Shooshanik Gregorian; his father was an accountant at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. After his mother died when Vartan was six and his father was drafted into the army during the Second World War, the young Vartan and his sister Ojik were raised by their maternal grandmother.

Vartan was a bright and curious child and spent a lot of time in the library. It was there that he got his love of education – a key theme of his later philanthropic work – and it was from his grandmother that he got his sense of fairness; she was his hero, he said. But he was unhappy when his father remarried and he ran away from home when he was 15.

Landing up in Beirut, he won a place at a college established to educate Armenian refugees and, after graduating in 1955, he won a scholarship to Stanford. He was fluent in many languages, although at the beginning of his life in America, his command of English was shaky. However, after studying history and humanities, he graduated with honours in two years.

Gregorian then embarked on a teaching career. He taught European and Middle Eastern history at San Francisco State College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin before joining the University of Pennsylvania in 1972, where he was founding dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. He was appointed provost in 1979.

He then experienced what he called the most painful experience of his life. He said he had been led to believe that he was a “shoo-in” for the postof university president but found out he hadn’t got the job when he heard the announcement on his car radio. Some of the trustees, he said, had thought him “too ethnic” and lacking in the social graces required for the job.

Gregorian’s response was to quit, and the following year the New York Public Library sent out feelers about whether he might be interested in the job of president there. It was a daunting position – the library had a $50m deficit and its buildings, and books, were in a poor way – but Gregorian loved the place. Not only was the library a national treasure, he said, it had made lives and saved lives. He became president and chief executive and by the end of his tenure in 1989, the library was back on a firm footing.

In 1997 he became president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the $3.5billion of grants for which he was responsible during his presidency had a particular focus on education.

He also became an advisor to other philanthropists including Bill and Melinda Gates. President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal, and President George W. Bush conferred on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Gregorian, a frequent visitor to Scotland, took a particular interest in Glasgow’s Burrell Collection. He last visited the country in 2019 when a window commissioned for Dunfermline Abbey more than 100 years ago by Andrew Carnegie was finally installed. The window was made by Tiffany Glass in 1913 but was deemed too modern at the time and was installed instead at the headquarters of the Carnegie Trust.

As an Armenian-American, Gregorian’s other great interest was Armenian causes; he frequently spoke, unpaid, at Armenian events. He was predeceased by his wife Clare Russell, a fellow student at Stanford, whom he married in 1960, and he is survived by their three sons, Dareh, Vahe and Raffi.