Henry D. Sahakian, a prominent local businessman, philanthropist and one of the most influential figures in the State College area’s development over the past 60 years, died on Feb. 23 in State College at the age of 84.
Sahakian’s many residential and commercial building projects have played a major role in shaping downtown State College and the rest of Centre Region as Penn State and the surrounding community rapidly grew in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Though he made his home in Centre County beginning with his time as a Penn State student in the 1950s, he also made a mark well beyond central Pennsylvania as well, founding the Uni-Mart convenience store chain and developing hotels, medical buildings and shopping centers elsewhere.
Born into a Christian Armenian family that escaped the Armenian genocide and settled in Iran, Sahakian was entrepreneurial from a young age, raising silkworms and selling them to fabric companies and taking and selling photos of couples at dance parties.
In 1956 he came to the United States to learn English at the Perkiomen School in Pennsburg (he was already fluent in Armenian, Persian and Russian) then went to Penn State to study mechanical engineering.
Though Sahakian had planned to return home after graduating, he decided to stay after his father died. On a trip back to Iran during his junior year, he married his childhood sweetheart, Seda Aslanian Hovanessian, and they returned to make State College their permanent home.
“He believed in America and the American dream,” his son, Fred Sahakian, said. “He also loved that there were freedoms of religion and freedom of expression.
“He loved State College because of Penn State and all the opportunities that were available in State College. He was a self-proclaimed ambassador and cheerleader of State College.”
His first mark on the State College landscape came in 1961 when at the age of 24 he founded Unico Corporation and undertook his first development, Armenara Plaza on Sowers Street. The building, named after his mother, was designed for student living and included a bowling alley and laundromat.
It was a challenging project at a time when off-campus living for university students was the exception, not the rule, and most bankers found it to be a risky proposition.
Armenara proved to be visionary. Through Unico Construction and his real estate company HFL Corporation (named for his children Heddy, Fred and Lara, each of whom are executives with the business today), Sahakian spearheaded numerous buildings that have shaped the borough as it and the university grew.
Some of Sahakian’s downtown State College projects include: Americana House, Ambassador Building, The Downtowner Hotel (later the Days Inn Penn State), Locust Lane Apartments, Hetzel Plaza, Beaver Plaza, University Gateway, Gateway Apartments (later The Meridian), Addison Court, Bryce Jordan Towers, Ambassador Square, Centre Court, Campus View, Legacy Apartments and Pugh Centre.
His companies have built many more residential, commercial and hotel developments around the State College area and throughout Centre County, as well.
In 1972, Sahakian opened a downtown State College convenience store called Majik Market. A decade later it had grown to 92 locations and Sahakian renamed the stores Uni-Mart. At its peak, the Uni-Mart chain had 588 stores with 5,500 employees in six states.
Uni-Mart was the business Sahakian said he was most proud of and in 1986 it became the first Centre Region-based company to be publicly traded, listed on the Nasdaq.
Fred Sahakian recalls meeting Penn State football and Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris about nine years ago. Harris asked if Fred was Henry’s son, then went on to explain how after his NFL career he was struggling to get a business off the ground and met with Henry to try to sell him paper products for Uni-Marts. He had decided if he couldn’t get an order, he’d have to fold the company.
“He said, ‘Your father gave me the entire account for all his Uni-Mart stores. That changed everything for me and I owe him a lot,'” Fred Sahakian said.
Sahakian, a pilot himself, also co-founded Sana Airlines, which later became Atlantic Airlines and offered the first commuter flights out of University Park Airport.
In the 1970s, he acquired Meadow Pride Dairy, which expanded to a six-dairy operation that was eventually sold to Pittsburgh-based Schneider’s Dairy in 1994.
Sahakian built and operated several restaurants over the years around central Pennsylvania, including Pappy’s Family Pub, The Press Box, Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, Burger King, Arby’s and Blimpie. He also founded Chunky Food Company, which created Dino’s Pizza.
An advocate of the business community in Centre County, Sahakian worked to draw major investments to the local economy, served as vice chair on the board of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County and was a member of the CEO Group of Centre County.
Using his success to give back to the community he loved, Sahakian established the Henry D. Sahakian Family Fund through Centre Foundation, which supports organizations that provide people with basic needs as well as those that care for children and the disabled.
Sahakian was a recipient of the Oak Tree Award from Centre Foundation for significant philanthropic impact in the community.
He and his companies have volunteered time and helped raise millions for charitable causes. Sahakian was an avid supporter of the Centre County Youth Service Bureau, Coaches vs. Cancer and Make-A-Wish Foundation, among others.
A lifetime member of the Penn State Alumni Association, he was a founding member of the National Development Committee, served on the university’s Grand Destiny Campaign committee and created scholarship and travel funds for Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management.
Sahakian was an active supporter of local artists and organizations including the Center for the Performing Arts, Penn State Centre Stage, Palmer Museum of Art and WPSU.
He also remained devoted to his Armenian roots as a constant supporter and advocate for the Children of Armenia Fund. Support from him and Seda has helped to build several schools in Armenia.
Fred Sahakian said that his father’s outreach could often be quieter and more personal. He recalled a few years ago a man overhearing his last name and asking if he was related to Henry Sahakian.
“He said, ‘Your father doesn’t know me but he paid for my father’s funeral and I wanted to thank you,'” Fred Sahakian said. “He said he was a young boy when his father passed away and his family was having financial difficulties, ‘so your father heard about it somehow and sent us a check that covered all his funeral expenses.'”
Since his own father’s passing, Fred Sahakian said the family has received many calls from people sharing stories about how Henry made an impact on their lives.
“My father was a humble man. He never wanted any accolades or recognitions. Those things were not so special to him,” he said. “I guess his legacy will remain in the hearts and minds of the people he touched. I’ve been getting calls from so many people that are telling me how he changed and touched their lives. Nothing made my father more proud than helping others that were in pursuit of their American dream.”
Henry Sahakian is survived by his wife, three children, son-in-law Ara Kervandjian and grandchildren Alex, Taline and Shant Kervandjian.
A private service will be held Thursday at Our Lady of Victory in State College. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Henry D. Sahakian Family Fund at Centre Foundation.