Every two weeks like clockwork, Peter Izmirian settles into a vinyl lounge chair at Memorial Blood Centers in St. Paul, pulls up his sleeve and donates platelets. He’s been donating whole blood and platelets since 1986, which translates into 560 visits.
That makes Izmirian one of just 22 of the 61,000 volunteer blood donors in Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin to reach that milestone.
But the 70-gallon pin he received last week is not the most remarkable thing about Izmirian, a pensive man drawn to the writings of Kahlil Gibran and who bears a striking resemblance to that beloved chap from the North Pole.
In this season of warmhearted stories of goodwill, Izmirian’s is possibly the most inspiring — not despite its underlying sadness, but because of it.
Comfort and joy were taken from Izmirian. He has chosen to respond by giving back in abundance.
“I’m just a guy who tries to do a little something to make a difference,” the 67-year-old Izmirian said. “I have no money to give, but I’ve got blood.”
Izmirian never was a rich man, far from it, but the retired courier from Rosemount once had enough money to feel comfortable. Then someone he thought was a friend siphoned it all away.
In 2014, Vadnais Heights investment adviser Mark Holt was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing more than $4 million from clients including Izmirian, who believed he had nearly $700,000 under Holt’s management.
When his personal nightmare was revealed, Izmirian had just $5,000 left in his checking and savings accounts. He now lives on $936 monthly Social Security checks, from which Medicare takes $122.
Yet he never misses an appointment at the blood center.
“I’m a very simple person,” Izmirian said. “I admire integrity overall. A man without integrity has nothing. You’ve got to be able to look yourself in the eye.”
He was born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1949, the only child of Edward, a chemical engineer, and Clara, a homemaker “and saint” who later worked as a church receptionist. The family moved to St. Louis Park when he was 3.
A book-smart intellectual, Izmirian almost flunked out of high school due to boredom. But he did love to sing, especially sacred and choral music. He could sing the entire “Messiah” by memory. He was athletic, too.
“The incongruity of me,” he said, his flowing hair and chest-length beard a duet of snowy white, “is that I love to play golf.” He played every position on the high school baseball team, too.
He wanted to be a doctor, but didn’t have the grades, so he majored in psychology at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and started a phone crisis line with a few friends.
He also worked as a medical orderly, which he calls “the most rewarding job ever. I had the temperament for it, the spirit. It wasn’t sad for me.”
Out of college, he took a job in shipping and receiving, moving up to warehouse supervisor. After a decade, he returned to school and became a veterinary nurse. It was a job he loved for 12 years, “but, at $10.50 an hour,” said Izmirian, who is divorced with no children, “I couldn’t support myself.”
He later became a courier, working up to $3,000 a month “and feeling like a king.”
One in 100
He donated blood for the first time in January 1986, encouraged to do so by a work colleague. He never thought it would be a lifelong activity. He put off donating a second time then, “all of a sudden, a bell went off. ‘You need to do this.’ ”
Every 56 days, he drove to the blood center headquarters, previously on Park Avenue S. in Minneapolis. When he hit the 8-gallon mark, he shifted to donating platelets every other week, up to 24 times a year.
“With platelets, you can go a lot more often and the pins did add up a lot faster,” he said with a smile.
He has kept every blood donor card. All 70 gallon-donor pins hang from four ribbons in his kitchen.
“He’s in rare company,” said Larry Silber, Memorial Blood Center’s (mbc.org) community relations officer. “The staff loves him. How could you not? He is such a generous guy. He likes to downplay it a little bit — says he does it for the cookies.”
In 2001, Izmirian attended a retirement seminar run by Holt to figure out what to do with his “meager” IRA, plus a little bit of money left to him by his father.
He and Sandy, his longtime partner, decided to live a little. They traveled to the Grand Canyon and took three cruises, including one to the New England islands, another to Oregon. “They were a blast,” he said. “It was my chance to see how the other half lives.” He corrects himself. “The other 5 percent.”
He kept Holt’s business card. “I ended up giving him my IRA to invest and it did well for a while.”
Their friendship seemed to be doing well, too. “He took me golfing all the time,” Izmirian said. “We went out to eat.”
Izmirian and Sandy invited Holt, who was divorced, along on a bourbon festival trip to Kentucky. Holt’s daughter called Izmirian “Uncle Petey.”
Through it all, according to the FBI, Holt was diverting funds from Izmirian’s retirement account and using the money for golf club memberships, trips, fancy cars and exotic dancers.
The statements he provided to Izmirian were dummied. “I should have recognized that, but he was my friend,” Izmirian said. “I had no clue.”
The past three years, Izmirian said, “have been the worst years of my life. I’m not the same person I used to be before I got ripped off. I’ve become more sullen, more moody, much less trusting and much quicker to get angry about stuff. I want my life back.”
A hearing was scheduled for Nov. 18, at which Izmirian would be able to offer a victim’s impact statement. But Holt got a postponement. So Izmirian waits anxiously for the hearing to be rescheduled.
He opens Kahlil Gibran’s “Sand and Foam,” and points to one of his favorite passages. He’s not sure why he marked it decades ago.
“The reality of the other person is not in what he reveals to you, but in what he cannot reveal to you. Therefore, if you would understand him, listen not to what he says, but rather to what he does not say.”
Thinking of others
Izmirian doesn’t get out much these days, save schlepping equipment for his friend, the legendary keyboardist Willie Murphy. Otherwise, he enjoys movies from the 1940s and ’50s (“Casablanca” is his favorite) and reading from cherished books, including Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”
“I’m very happy sitting in my chair at home and thinking,” he said. He has no cellphone or computer.
“Once you get one,” he said, “they own you.”
But at 11 a.m. every other Wednesday, Izmirian finds himself in his happy place.
Silber noted that the blood center is doubly blessed to have such a loyal donor. Izmirian’s genetic blood composition is uniquely free of antigens that could cause serious complications for the critically ill who require frequent transfusions, such as premature babies, cancer patients and bone marrow receivers.
The chance of being in that group? One in 100.
“When I walk into the blood center,” said this unique 1-percenter, “it’s ‘Honey, I’m home.’ They line up for hugs.”