Election day will be the next test for John Nalbandian, who seeks re-election to the Lawrence City Commission.
John Nalbandian remembers well the biggest disappointment of his life.
Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa in international relations from the University of Southern California, Nalbandian planned to pass the entrance exam for the U.S. Foreign Service, work in an embassy and someday become an ambassador.
"I didn't make it," he said succinctly last week. "I did pass the written test, but I couldn't pass the oral test."
No problem. Nalbandian quickly shifted gears and did what any job-seeking honors graduate would: join the Army, rate tops in his battalion, join the Central Intelligence Agency, return to school, earn a doctorate in public administration, come to Kansas University, become his department's first chairman, write a book, become a full professor, get elected to the Lawrence City Commission and, finally, be named mayor of his adopted hometown.
"That's the best thing that ever happened to me, failing that test," Nalbandian said. "This is a much better career."
Today, as his first foray into public office draws to a close, Nalbandian is one of six candidates vying for one of three commission seats up for election Tuesday. He's going in as the top vote-getter in last month's primary.
"I'm not surprised that my life leads me in these directions," he said, filling out a pile of campaign postcards at his kitchen table last week. "I don't have these driving ambitions to be in charge of things, but it just seems like people feel pretty confident with me in a leading role. And I'm willing to accept that responsibility."
But it almost never happened.
Nalbandian's parents met by mail, during World War II, when one of Sgt. Harry Nalbandian's friends mentioned a nice woman in New York named Alice, who had come to the United States from Turkey at age 8. After exchanging letters and pictures for a year, the two were engaged -- despite having never met.
The couple married and lived together in the Pacific Northwest until Alice got pregnant -- sending her back home to New York, where her parents owned an Armenian grocery store.
After Nalbandian's birth, his mother moved to Los Angeles and reunited the family, leaving John to embark on a successful educational career.
Michael Hollingsworth remembers the Nalbandians raising a hard-working son who had a strong sense of commitment and firm drive to succeed.
"He was a major brain," said Hollingsworth, a friend from Hawthorne High School, four miles from Los Angeles International Airport. "He was always one of the top 15, 20 students. Advanced math, advanced English, advanced history -- all the advanced classes. He just has a natural intelligence."
Nalbandian also had athletic leanings, but his days playing baseball and basketball for the Hawthorne Cougars never quite reached superstar status.
"John was kind of the rock," Hollingsworth said. "If we weren't doing well in a game, he was the one who would rally the troops and say, `Hey, we're only down five points, get your chins off the floor.'"
Nalbandian still keeps tabs on sports through recreation, whether it's in his basement fitness center, on jogging trails along Clinton Parkway or through convincing fellow commissioners to install wider sidewalks along Peterson Road.
It shouldn't be a surprise. Nalbandian once worked as an office boy for the L.A. Lakers, mimicking "Hot Rod" Hundley's around-the-back passes in pickup games and worshiping Elgin Baylor's double-pump layups from the Sports Arena stands.
"He was my idol," Nalbandian said. "I named my son after him -- John Baylor Nalbandian."
Last year Nalbandian, a Democrat, and his wife, Carol, moved from southeast Lawrence to 2006 Riviera Ct., a property valued at $242,000. He has been a full professor of public administration since 1991.
Nalbandian's close ties to municipal government have not been without disputes, however. Richard Kershenbaum, a member of the East Lawrence Improvement Assn., clashed with Nalbandian last year about the process for moving ahead on a proposed Eastern Parkway.
Kershenbaum called Nalbandian and his fellow commissioners liars, and Nalbandian in turn pledged not to meet with any East Lawrence group if Kershenbaum was included.
"It has to make you wonder," Kershenbaum said. "We all at times have to meet with people we don't agree with, and that's doubly so when you're a public official."
Nalbandian acknowledges being criticized in the past as aloof and indecisive, and that's just fine with him. He doesn't claim to be a professional politician, and doesn't want to be.
"It's not my life," he said.
The up-front approach has served Nalbandian well, Mayor Jo Andersen said. At least 90 percent of the people she talks to support him, and not always for his political ideals.
"That's the most amazing thing about John: He's so damn honest," Andersen said. "I don't dare ask him what he thinks of my hair, because he'll tell me exactly what he thinks."