Joseph J. Durna (1889-1958)

By: Joseph P. Sargis


Joseph Durna was born in Diarbekir, Turkey of Assyrian parents in 1889 and was brought to the United States at the age of eight. He attended local schools in Newark, New Jersey, studied later at the Newark College of Engineering and the New Jersey Law School. Economic conditions being what they were, young Joseph Durna had to work his way through school. He married the former Fareeda Dartley, who bore him two children, John W., and Mary, who married Haig Bediguian and lived with her father in Newark. Mrs. Durna died in 1928.

Following graduation from Law School, Joseph Durna practiced law for a time, but in the main 41 years to be exact, served as an attorney for the Prudential Insurance Company. He retired from active work in 1953, but maintained an office in Newark.

Among his many interests: he was a member of Bloomfield (N.J.) Lodge F & A. M. #40 and would have received a 50 year token in 1960. He had joined the Lodge in 1910. He was also a member of the Presbyterian Square Club of Newark; Roseville chapter #45 Newark Royal Arch Masons; Kane Council #2, East Orange N.J., Most Puissant Grand Council of Royal and Select Masters of the State of New Jersey; Canyon Square Club of Newark; the Essex County Bar Association New Jersey State Bar Association; Rutgers Law School Alumni Association; Assyrian Sunday School Association, and the Assyrian Educational Club. In 1945, he was a delegate from the Newark Presbytery to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., at Los Angeles

He was a remarkable student, indeed, and showed a strong, desire for an education while at an early age. A Bloomfield (N.J.) newspaper, dated June 1904, recounted in an editorial on how young Durna surmounted all obstacles to finish grammar school when it would have been much easier to stay home. It seems that the elder Mr. and Mrs. Durna (John and Sadie) were ford to work at local factories and leave Joe home to care for a younger brother. Not wishing to miss school, he just brought his younger brother (Henry) along to class. The news article said in part: . . . "the boy's ambition to get an education was appreciated by his teachers, and they and his colleagues in the class felt a mutual pride in his success..." Young Joe graduated at the head of that class and enjoyed the honor of making the Salutatory Address. The burning desire to improve himself remained and he later enjoyed the distinction of passing the New Jersey Bar examination before he had finished his law studies.

So much for his personal sketch. No account of Joseph Durna's life would be complete were it to end here, for his was the life of that rare individual indeed, the type commonly called the "whole man." Understanding, patient, broad-minded in scope of thought, considerate of his neighbor's feelings, diplomatic in his conduct, generous, unswerving and dedicated, yes, all these virtues he possessed. But mere words, which, while they may describe a person adequately, sometimes fall short of the mark. For unless you have known a person intimately and this is not always the criterion how can you tell what possesses him or drives him to do what he thinks has to do for whatever reason he may have. Despite the enormity of the task, let us here record some of Joseph Durna's labors and leave it to him who in his infinite wisdom will judge this man as he will each and everyone of us in our turn.

As early as the years immediately following the First World War, he became active in Assyrian affairs. As a strong advocate of an Assyrian national homeland, he was an alternate delegate to the League of Nations. And while Assyrian hopes for such a homeland in the Middle East of that period vanished in the thin air of diplomatic hogwash, Joseph Durna kept right on plugging along. And as recently as 1945, he was in San Francisco for the organization of the United Nations, busy button-holing people in the name of a project, even he must have at times felt was hopeless. But, still he talked, and if nothing else, managed to gain a more realistic approach to the problems of his people from the rulers of the countries, which they inhabit throughout the Middle East.

Tireless and dedicated he also was. No problem concerning Assyrians ever was too big or too small for him to tackle. His correspondence with heads of government and lower case officials was voluminous. He never failed to take advantage of opportunities to talk with visiting dignitaries from the Middle East. During the 40 odd years or so in which he worked for Assyrian causes he held audiences with most of the various leaders of Middle Eastern countries, sometimes at crowded gatherings, in corners of hotel rooms, in the quiet and dignity of foreign embassies (in the U.S.), in cubbyhole rooms at air terminals and even at the foot of plane and ship ramps when he had to fight his way through custom and government officials to catch a dignitary's car if for no longer than minute or two.

Joseph Durna learned early that working on an individual level had its shortcomings and made already formidable tasks even more difficult. In 1933, along with a forward-minded group, which included David Perley, the late Alexander Ameer, Charles, Dartley, George Mardinly, David Jacobs, Sam Aslan and John Ashji, helped found the Assyrian American Federation. Up until that time, local Assyrian organizations handled all affairs of the various Assyrian communities in the U.S. with hit and miss effect. The Federation, it was visioned, could better serve our small nation by coordinating the policies of the local organizations.

Alexander Ameer, a former captain in the British Army, was named the first president of the Federation and in turn was succeeded by David Perley and Joseph Durna, who served as president for 19 years. They were long and trying years in which Joseph Durna served, encompassing the long depression, World War II and the year's of the post-war boom. He never faltered, however, always envisioning better things for Assyrians everywhere and especially those living in the strife-torn countries of the Middle East.

The Federation, never wholly accepted by all Assyrian groups encountered many roadblocks. Bitterness and acrimony were the bedfellows of its antagonists. When it was easier to fight back with equal bitterness, Joseph Durna's weapons were what Assyrians like to call a "sweet tongue" and a quiet respect for the opposition's feelings. He was neither arrogant nor pompous; condescending, yes, when proven wrong, but in all things fair. Blessed in his personal endeavors, he never sought gain from his extra-curricular activities for himself. To serve his people anyway that he could was his only concern.

Seeing the need for a national publication, he, along with the late I. Ronald Yonan, founded the Assyrian Star magazine in 1951. Joseph Durna served as the STAR's editor until November 1956 and then moved up as its president. During his six years of association, the STAR got off its baby's legs to a position of stability. In the very fist issue of the STAR, as editor, Joseph Durna wrote:" Prejudice, bias, clannishness, sectarianism, unwholesome and destructive criticism, and the like, will be avoided . . . while wholesome and constructive criticism will be encouraged . . . ". Joseph Durna's editorials, even when critical, were written with only one point in mind - "is this good for ALL Assyrians?".

Source: The Assyrian Star Magazine, January 1958