Babak Armajani had an uncanny ability to see how things work and figure out how to make them work better.
With a strategist’s mind-set and a love for civic reform, he spent decades of his life working to improve public schools and other parts of local, state and federal government across the country.
Armajani, 67, died unexpectedly Monday.
“I’ve never met a guy like him,” said Peter Hutchinson, whose friendship with Armajani began in graduate school at Princeton University 40 years ago. “He taught hundreds of thousands of people how to think about this world.”
In 1990, Armajani, Hutchinson and John James founded Public Strategies Group Inc., a consulting firm that served as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools in the mid-1990s.
Armajani also served as the state deputy commissioner of the Administration and Revenue departments.
“He brought to this department and his other public and private ventures a deep commitment to making government more efficient and service-oriented,” Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said in a prepared statement. “That commitment will resonate long after his death.”
Hutchinson said, “This is a guy who had faith in government and faith that government could be better and faith that the way to make government better was through people.”
He described Armajani as a “maddeningly overcommitted, passionate guy,” a testament reflected in the government agencies he influenced.
He helped restructure the federal Office of Student Financial Assistance, radically changed how the states of Washington and Iowa addressed budgeting and most recently worked on education issues in Oregon.
“He never sought the limelight, but he always sought to make things better and would do whatever it took,” Hutchinson said.
His impact on government agencies will last through the people there, colleagues said.
“While many of those agencies haven’t changed much, there are a lot of people in those agencies who look at government differently now, and that will slowly change things,” said Larry Grant, a friend and former colleague.
The people Armajani worked with loved him, Hutchinson said. “It was because of the way he embraced everyone around him.”
But his biggest accomplishment was his family, Grant said. Armajani helped raise a stepson and nephew.
“In the vocabulary he used, he would always refer to us as his kids, very consistently [and] tenaciously,” nephew Arjan Schutte said.
He was the center of a large circle of friends, gathering people for canoe trips, golf outings, wilderness adventures and board games. His family couldn’t remember him losing Monopoly once in 40 years. His woodworking hobby meant his friends and family always received homemade items.
Armajani blurred the lines between family members and friends and had a way of turning those who disagreed with him into allies, loved ones said.
His sister, Nurene Armajani, said he had a “tenderness people gravitate to.”
His cousin Karen Muller said, “He would do anything for us — anything in his power, and you knew that was a solid base behind you.”
“He was the best friend you ever had, by far,” Hutchinson said. “I miss him a lot already.”
His family will host a celebration of his life this month.
Other survivors include his wife, Sarah; daughter, Leah; stepson, Brook Johnson, and five grandchildren.