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December 10, 1999


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What Makes Peter Bhatia Proud

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Shubada Deshpande Peter K Bhatia with family members

When Peter K Bhatia was elected treasurer of the American Society of Newspapers recently and was designated to be president of 850-member group in 2003, he told his 74-year-old father, V N Bhatia, to hang on, despite numerous health problems.

"He's had bypass surgery 12 years ago and now his body is breaking down," says Bhatia, the senior-most newspaper editor of south Asian origin in the United States.

"He doesn't have many years left. I keep telling him, I am going to be assuming office in 2003 and I expect you to be there, and he says, "'Okay, okay, that's something to shoot for'."

At 46, Bhatia is the executive editor of The Oregonian, the largest daily in the Pacific Northwest with 360,000 subscribers for its daily edition and 450,000 for its weekend edition.

He has served thrice as a Pulitzer juror and has been an editor on three Pulitzer-winning projects.

In newspaper articles and in discussion with his friends, Peter Bhatia says he owes a considerable amount of his success to his parents, particularly his Lucknow-born father who is often mistaken for an Italian because the name, Vishnu Narain Bhatia, is sprinkled with the letter 'I'.

"If only there was a film star with the same name, that would help," says son Peter.

His work ethic, Peter Bhatia says, comes from his father who continues to work as a special assistant to the president of the University of Washington, an institution where he has worked for 45 years as a professor. The university has a lecture series dedicated to him called the V N Bhatia Lectures on Education.

Peter Bhatia was the first in his family to step into journalism. His family has always had doctors, merchants or professionals. While his father went into academics, his mother became an artist.

"My sister is an artist too but now she's into training horses. She makes more money being a horse-trainer in Spokane than she would as an artist. So I guess we have done things our own way," Bhatia says, laughing.

In recent years many Indians have got into journalism, and Bhatia knows why.

Journalism offers a breeding ground to an intellectual mind, he says. Most often it is something that the parents did not get into, and it is a career that has some impact on society.

Peter Bhatia began chasing his intellectual dream at 12 when he began putting out a neighborhood magazine.

"When I was a kid, I remember listening to my father and his friends discussing politics and the issues of the day," he recalls.

"Indians are great at debating and it was a learning experience. It certainly made me interested in political writing and policy-making."

There were not too many hugs in his childhood, he recalls, and the praise was sometimes spare but compassion was ever present.

Vishnu Narain Bhatia came to the United States in 1947, to get a PhD at the University of Iowa. He had a degree from the Benaras Hindu University.

He returned to India with a PhD and an American fiancée whom he met on a bus in 1949 on the way to a YMCA/YWCA leadership retreat. After their wedding in Bombay they tried to live in India but it was not an easy life for a mixed race couple in post-Independence India.

"From what I remember being mentioned, it seems to me that it was not too miserable but that it was a difficult time," the son says. "My father decided to return to the United States in 1952 to Pullman, Washington where he began working. He came to this country way before it became fashionable for Indians to do so. He returned to a career in academics at a time when Indians were a novelty and the kind of image India had in the US was very different."

The biggest life lesson Peter Bhatia learned from his father "is to handle myself with dignity.

"Nobody is perfect but whatever you do, he always says, don't lose your dignity. His fundamentals are based on dignity, integrity, composure and that's ultimately in your best interest. He didn't do this by lecturing to me. Rather, he set an example by being himself," says Peter.

As for himself and his sister Robin, he says, growing up in an Indo-American household gave them a larger world-view.

Now with his American wife, Elizabeth Dahl, also a journalist, he's attempting to do the same for his own children, Megan and Jay.

"We all learn from our parents," he says. "Sometimes I am talking to my kids and then I stop short and start laughing because I sound so much like my father when I was a teenager.

"The fundamental principal I learnt from my father is the fact that I am a different person and my children are different from what I was when I was growing up."

Of his Indian connection and his love for Indian food, he says, grew thanks to his mother's cooking which he and his sister loved. His mother picked up Indian cooking after her marriage. Now his kids also love visiting the Indian restaurants in Portland. He's been twice to India, visited cousins and seen his father's ancestral home in Lucknow, which, he says, is now a government office.

His daughter, Megan is ready for her visit now.

"My kids are well aware of their Indian background but it is going to be harder and harder in the years ahead (to keep the connection," he feels.

"When my father's gone it is going to be very difficult. But when I am gone only the name will survive.

"I would like my kids' association with India to be much more. They have heard of their grandfather's struggle, read the essays, heard the stories. They have only a quarter of an Indian in them," he says.

At 13, his daughter is more concerned with her social life, and his 10-year-old son is passionate about sports events.

"So it sure is difficult to zone in on the Indian aspect now," he says. "But as they get older, I would like their understanding to go beyond the carpets and the art work in the living room."

Peter Bhatia's own understanding of journalism and managing newspapers has been gained in California and Texas. He has served as the executive editor of the Fresno Bee, managing editor of the Sacramento Bee, managing editor of the Dallas Herald and deputy managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner.

Of his present work he says, " From a journalist I have become an administrator. My job is to oversee newsgathering and ensure the smooth working of editors. It's as good as it gets and I am having fun doing it. This way I can satisfy my passion for the field as well as the craft of newspaper production."

Of the years ahead at the ASNE he says, "I will be in office four years from now, so I don't know the exact course of action but we will continue to deal with the ongoing issues of credibility, diversity, readership etc.

"There will also be contemporary issues which will emerge over the years and we will look at them also."

His writing tends to be more academic these days.

"I would love to go back to writing and that is what I plan to do in my sixties," he says. "So far, my writing is more towards contributing to journalism textbooks. I admire people who can shift gears and write a book. Lots of friends have done that."

He believes great reporting and great writing skills are complementary.

"We don't see too many reporter-writers," he notes.

Of his success he puts it casually, "It's just about being at the right place at the right time. It's a wonderful paper and I am enjoying the experience and all that we have done as a team to take this paper to the top. I am also fortunate to have worked with seven different newspapers earlier and enjoyed each experience."

'I Owe It All to You': Peter Bhatia's tribute to his father

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