Mike Tharp: The doctor who helped the lame to walk and helped restore a theater

March 31, 2012 

Dr. Art Kamangar stands in the balcony of the restored Merced Theatre. His $1 million donation helped get the matching funds to finish the 14-year, $14 million renovation of the classic 1931 theater.

Its grand reopening will be April 21. He'll be in the front row. His daughter Tara will play the piano and perform with the Merced Symphony on stage.

The 74-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon gazes at the 1,100 new seats, the Spanish courtyard decor of the elevated box seats on each side, the ruby curtain across the stage.

Does he have a feeling of fatherhood about the project that marks one of the most important milestones in Merced's cultural history?

"More a sense of relief," the trim, Iranian-born philanthropist says softly. "Now all the people of Merced can enjoy this."

His legacy was already assured before he ever became a benefactor and board member of the Merced Theatre Foundation. In medical circles he became well-known for an innovation that helped make the transplant of artificial hips safer and more durable.

His $500,000 donation endowed a chair at UC Merced. For 25 years, since he moved to Merced from the Bay Area, Kamangar Ranches, which specializes in fruit orchards, kept his "retirement" busy.

And the achievements of his two sons and daughter have made him more proud of them than any of his own accomplishments. Salar, 35, is CEO of YouTube and a senior vice president of Google. ("Do you realize YouTube collects more than 2 billion items every 24 hours?" Art marvels.) His other son, Arya, 28, holds a Ph.D. in modern languages and has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Mainz in Germany and in Japan. And daughter Tara, an honors graduate from Harvard and London's Royal Academy of Music, has been called "a huge talent" at the piano by the London Evening Standard.

Now, like the keystone of one of the theater's arches, that legacy will include what some believe will be a cultural tipping point that will not only revitalize downtown Merced. Many think the theater will become an entertainment hub for the whole Valley -- music, drama, ballet, cinema, opera, graduations, weddings -- all manner of special events whose economic tides will lift all local boats.

Not bad for the

second-youngest of eight children born to his parents in Tehran. His family were investors before and during the days of the Shah's rule in Iran.

Art had left his native soil after getting a medical degree, years before the 1979 revolution that brought the mullahs to power. He did his internship and residency in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the '60s. "I was always interested in total hip arthroplasty," he says over lunch at Fernando's Bistro.

He contributed to the research done by Sir John Charnley, the British surgeon who pioneered the artificial hip. The Briton's main breakthrough was an artificial hip that placed metal against high-density polyurethane, a plastic. Earlier metal-on-metal devices had proved painful and vulnerable to metal fatigue.

Art's contribution was to determine the right size of the femoral head in an artificial hip. He and Sir John published a scientific paper in the '60s with Art's calculation that 22 millimeters (he holds his hand up and makes a circle the size of a quarter with four fingers pressed against his thumb to show the dimension) was the ideal width to make an artificial hip work well.

"Normally, it was much bigger," he recalls. "If the femoral head had been as big as normal, there would be no space for the socket (from the pelvis). If it were smaller (than 22 millimeters), it would have bored into the high-density polyurethane and there would have been much quicker wear."

The procedure wasn't approved in the U.S. till 1972. So Art moved to London to practice, where it was allowed. He performed the first such surgery in Sweden and several other countries. "In those days it was extremely rare that a surgeon could do that operation," he shrugs.

He operated. Within a few days, a patient would be walking with no pain. Some even ran. "It was very gratifying to me," he says.

Eventually, he settled and practiced in the Bay Area. He did well enough to retire early. And so in 1987 he moved to Merced and started the ranch.

Why Merced? "I really love Merced and Merced people," he says. "I've helped as much as I can."

He's traveled the world, including a recent ski trip to France (because our nearby mountains didn't have enough snow), but he hasn't been back to Iran since the revolution.

Hesitating to drop a name, he concedes that his friend Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, "used to tell me that he enjoyed Iran among all the countries he visited."

He credits his parents for his success: "They helped me the best by disciplining me." The virtues he values most: honesty and hard work.

Art speaks English, Farsi and "a bit of" Swedish, French and Spanish. He keeps lean by snow and water skiing and playing tennis.

For him, during his lifetime the most important event was the fall of communism. "It's amazing how East and West Germany recuperated to become the strongest economy in Europe," he says with a small shake of his head. "And so many of the Soviet countries have done well."

Over lunch he consults a handwritten piece of paper, with notes on both sides. He wants to be sure to mention everybody who has helped bring the dream of a restored Merced Theatre to reality. (Katherine Crookham, chair; Andrea Stoddard, foundation manager; L. Carmen Ramirez, a director; Grey Roberts, treasurer ... many others. The Sun-Star will cite them in our stories, columns, blogs, photos and videos leading up to the grand gala.)

As for his $1 million contribution, "if we would have not had the funding, we would lose the matching funds," he says, "and the restoration wouldn't have been possible."

To him, the theatre is now "a national treasure."

Even more important are his children. "When I call them, I say, 'Do your best and be happy!' I retired early, much younger than most of my colleagues, so I could spend time with them."

Dr. Art Kamangar is a Mercedian. The Iranian-born immigrant who helped revolutionize hip surgery is one of us. He moved here. He lives here. He loves Merced and its people.

One recent afternoon he had a flat tire. It happened near a local gas station. A young man came over, changed the tire, fixed the old one and declined Art's offer of money. "He told me, 'You have done so much for us.' But people in Merced have helped me generously."

And at the corner of Main and Martin Luther King Jr. Way stands proof that Dr. Art Kamangar's big heart has helped us even more.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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