Richard Aaronian receives 2023 Founders’ Day Award

Longtime science instructor introduced marine biology and ornithology courses and forged lasting connections with generations of Exonians. 

Sarah Pruitt '95
May 19, 2023
Rich Aaronian

Students, faculty, Trustees and past recipients of the Founders’ Day Award gathered in the Assembly Hall on Friday to honor this year’s award winner, Instructor Emeritus in Science Richard S. Aaronian '76, '78, '97 (Hon.); P'94, P'97. Established by the Trustees in 1976, the Founders’ Day Award is given annually in recognition of service to the Academy.

“Throughout your 49-year career at Exeter, your boundless appetite for life and the natural world, your innate decency, and your devoted care for your students made you one of the school's most beloved instructors, coaches and dorm parents,” said General Alumni Association President Betsy Fleming ’86 while delivering the award citation.

As a young science instructor in the early 1970s, Aaronian oversaw the addition of classes in marine biology and ornithology, and helped start the place-based field trip program that is a mainstay of Exeter’s Science Department today. He chaired the department from 1991—95 and was named the Harlan Page Amen Professor of Science in 1999. Over the course of his career, he received several major faculty awards, including the Rupert Radford Faculty Fellowship Award, the Brown Family Faculty Award and the George S. Heyer Award.

>>Watch the presentation

Outside the classroom, Aaronian coached boys JV hockey for 26 years, and JV baseball for a decade. He served as head of three dorms — Amen, Bancroft and Williams House — and led the Community Conduct Committee, among other key committees.

“Family shaped my life,” Aaronian said in his remarks. He spoke of his childhood in Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts, where he lived in close quarters with his parents, both of whom immigrated from Armenia, his three older sisters, and a clan of relatives. The first in his family to attend college, he discovered a passion for ornithology at the University of New Hampshire. Later, while pursuing a master’s degree at UNH, he saw an index card on the departmental office door advertising a job as a part-time science instructor at the Academy.

On the Assembly Hall stage on Friday, Aaronian waved a similar card in the air. “[Do] you know what those are?” he asked the appreciative audience. “That card changed my life.”

He later spoke of the teachers who had been his mentors over the years, from his 10th-grade biology teacher to Andrew Polychronis, the longtime biology teacher at Exeter who offered him guidance in his early years at the school, when he felt like a “fish out of water, or like the Steller’s sea eagle, who found its way to Maine miles from its home in northern Japan and eastern Russia back in 2021.”

Aaronian and his wife, Peg, lived in Amen Hall and Bancroft Hall at the outset of co-education at Exeter. “In addition to her own career as writer, editor and public TV broadcaster, she was there when I was giving extra help coaching, on dorm duty or at committee meetings,” Aaronian recalled. “It doesn't surprise me that we have a special relationship with members of those early classes in the 1970s… . In fact, I've always felt that we grew up together.”

In honor of Aaronian’s retirement in 2020, the class of 1978 (one of three classes of alumni to claim him as an honorary member) established a funded summer internship for an Exeter student at the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island in Maine. Aaronian currently accompanies ornithology students on birdwatching trips to Plum Island and elsewhere, which preserves his ties with students even several years after leaving the classroom.   

Aaronian concluded his remarks by recalling “a few things that make me smile as I think back on my years at Exeter.” He spoke collectively to generations of students, past and present, when he said: “Listening to you at the table help a classmate understand a difficult concept in introductory biology. Watching your face when you understand that concept. Listening to you recall a single play from a hockey game many years ago.”

In closing, Aaronian offered some hopes for the current students seated in the Assembly Hall. “That you find something to be passionate about… .That you will help protect our environment in whatever ways you are able,” he said. “Most importantly, I hope you find on a three-by-five-inch index card — or the digital equivalent — something that will change your life in ways you could not ever imagine.”

The Richard S. Aaronian Summer Field Studies Internship Fund was established in 2021 to honor Richard Aaronian’s service to the Academy. The purpose of the fund is to support one student internship during the summer for research and field studies. To make a gift to this fund, please go to and in the "Additional comments" box indicate that you designate your gift to the Richard S. Aaronian Summer Field Studies Internship Fund.