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December 10, 1999

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'I Owe It All to You'

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Peter Bhatia

He's not so tall anymore, at least in physical stature. But even at 74, with pace slower, heart failing, diabetes swirling and memory wobbling, he still is the Empire State Building to me.

The passing decades may have taken away some of his imperial bearing, may have eliminated the necessity for the crisp, dark, hand-tailored Hong Kong suits and the perfectly tied (double Windsor knot, of course) single-color ties, but he is still the epitome of class, intellectual rigor and doing the right thing.

He is my father, Vishnu Narain Bhatia. Named for a Hindu god. It seems he doesn't have long until he meets his God. For what he has meant and done for me, I thank God, whatever his name.

He came to this country in 1947, about the time of the partition of India and Pakistan, to get a PhD at the University of Iowa, an adventure unheard of at the time. Before, everyone in his family had been educated in England. But the British were leaving India and as the last of seven children his fate was determined more by older sisters than his parents.

Old photos showed him at 6-foot-1, all arms and legs -- and there were the ears, sticking out it seemed about a foot, big enough to make Dumbo proud. His college travels turned out to be all the more unusual: He returned to India with his degree and an American fiancÚ he had met on a bus in 1949 on the way to a YMCA/YWCA leadership retreat.

They were married in Bombay in 1951 and he went to work as a pharmaceutical researcher. There isn't much conversation about those days anymore, but it is clear that the dark-skinned Indian and the strawberry-blonde native of Chicago had a difficult time in an India that had just gained its independence from the light-skinned Brits.

They returned to the United States, settling in the first place he got an offer -- Pullman, Washington. I was born a year later in 1953. My sister arrived in 1955.

My childhood wasn't full of talk about the way to behave, an approach to school or a philosophy toward life. The direct conversations tended to be more like "Take out the garbage," "Go mow the lawn," or the more common, "Stop beating your sister." I often felt like a replacement for the servants he grew up with.

But the lessons by example were always there and even though the hugs weren't always plentiful and the praise was sometimes spare, compassion was never far below the surface. Often, it seemed masked under the drive that led him to work 45 years for the same institution, Washington State University.

He still works today, a trusted adviser to the school's president. The values of decency, making a difference, caring about people and suffering fools poorly, they haven't changed a bit. Nor has the goofy sense of humor. This scholarly man, this icon of academia still sends me off to the bathroom with the salutation, "Don't fall in!"

He prospered in the most political of worlds, where those high-minded intellectuals throw multi-syllabic knives at each other daily. He endured through the years with an unbowed attitude, always staying above the fray, never letting the a101010* get to him (though he would never utter that word), reflecting a stiff upper lip that even the British would admire.

His commitment to education and the excellence he brought to it won the respect of all and advanced him to a remarkable position as director of international education. It allowed him to travel around the world on university business and gave him the opportunity to touch many, many lives.

In all he has accomplished and in the manner he has done so, he is a perfect role model, teaching me lesson after lesson in the value of hard work, leadership by example, do your job better than anyone before or since.

Growing up in Pullman wasn't difficult duty, despite having to take out the garbage all the time, and I look back on it with a fondness filled with anecdotes that in the light of adulthood take on important meanings:

My earliest memory dates to about kindergarten. We were watching a football game one day on TV. Black and white, of course. Mom left for the store. I declined to go along. Then the game ended. I roared out the front door as only a five-year-old can, chasing mom's car down the street. He followed, legs and ears surely flapping, causing quite an uproar in our little neighborhood.

He chased me down, laughing (although that may be wishful thinking) with some embarrassment as the neighbor cop, who was always out washing his patrol car, looked on disapprovingly. This day was the first of many times he saved me from myself.

About age 10, I came to understand the concept of death. No particular incident set me off. Just brain cells turning on. I couldn't sleep. My insides were churning. Some day we die and that's it, and then time goes on forever without me, I reasoned. He came to my rescue then, too, spending what seemed the whole night but probably no more than 15 minutes, counseling, explaining, emphasizing the importance of the time we do have on earth.

Through the whole conversation, sitting on the foot of the bed, he was rubbing my feet, talking calmly, calmingly, rationally, thoughtfully. But the message was ultimately one of purpose, one of love, of guidance, of coaching, and one I haven't forgotten.

On Friday nights during my pre-adolescence, he and his buddies from intellectual-land got together over Scotch and cigars to talk and end the week in style. These were obnoxiously smart guys and they hypothesized, pontificated and dissected the issues of the day. I sat on the fireplace hearth and just listened. JFK was a hero. Civil rights were a necessity. LBJ was a buffoon, though he was our buffoon.

Those missiles in Cuba? Hell, yes, we had to blockade. And what a disgrace it was the lengths the university went to keep those football players in school. Here was the cure for every problem at the university, for society.

It was a wonderful education, although I came to realize they really were full of it on some of the issues. Above it all, he sat, in the blue chair in the corner, debating with surety, arguing with reason, confident without reservation. Again, there were the lessons. Reason through a situation, argue your point with passion. Even if you lose (and even though you're never wrong), say what the hell, and move on.

That hearth and blue chair were the scene of what he considers the most memorable conversation of my childhood. He decided it was time for the birds-and-the-bees talk. He gave me all the gory details. Throughout, I kept asking, "Can I go out and play now?" When he finished, he asked if I had any questions. "Yes, I said, can I go out and play now?"

But a week later I was back with a question. Sitting on the hearth. Him in the blue chair. Good, he thought, some of this has sunk in. "Dad, I asked, did President Kennedy have to do that to Mrs Kennedy to have a baby?" "Yes, he said, that's what we were talking about." "Yuck," I said, and went outside to play. No great lessons in this story, but it is his favorite.

I am sure that the thoroughly American teenager I became was a puzzling animal for a son of India, even though like many immigrants he became more "American than Americans". He Anglicized his name to "Vic," and I recall him recruiting me to distribute campaign brochures for Scoop Jackson after he became a precinct committeeman. He bought me my first car when I was 16 -- showing remarkable and unspoken trust -- a '63 Chevy Bel Air that my wife remembers well.

He tolerated my love of sports, taking me to football games in Spokane though he didn't give a damn, a tradition we re-enacted for the first time in 28 years this past New Year's Day when we attended the Rose Bowl together. He also taught me golf, secretly delighting when I beat him when I was about 15.

He used to sneak into my high-school football games, not telling me he was there, partly because he didn't want to put pressure on me, partly because he didn't want anyone to know he was really attending -- gad -- a high-school football game.

He let me negotiate my own way through school, saying little and tolerating the facial hair, the tank tops, the bellbottoms, the Beatles and even, later, buying me beer. At the time, of course, I missed the larger notion of giving me rope, but controlling the length so I couldn't get into much trouble.

There were never any lectures about getting good grades. But the expectations from the good professor were crystal clear. A's were expected; anything less was a failure. I vividly recall bringing home my first B, in sophomore English. From Mrs Hastings. Who used to write "trite" all over my English papers. I still hate Mrs Hastings -- my first experience with an editor.

Fortunately, he took it well, being a scientist and not caring too much about good writing. The B in chemistry junior year was a little tougher to explain, but the support was unbending. It helped that I got an A in the second semester.

He didn't give me many orders in those days -- they say I wasn't much trouble -- until it came time for college. Once again, he saved me from myself, ordering me out of the college town that had been my home for 18 years and to Stanford. It is probably the single-most important thing he ever did for me, opening up a world of possibilities I'd never dreamed of. Nor did he push me in any career direction. That his son became a journalist was a surprise to the scientist, but never met with disapproval, especially when it brought me home to start my career in Spokane.

Through adulthood, our relationship has changed and matured. We talk about career, though he never gives me advice because he doesn't know the newspaper business (though he does know newspapers) and because he foolishly believes I'm grown up.

There have been some eerie parallels in our careers, like the time we both had female subordinates having affairs with our male bosses. The conversations went something like: "What are you going to do about it."

"There's nothing I can do."

"You?"

"There's nothing I can do either."

Fortunately, both situations passed.

Perhaps the most important change has occurred in the last decade, after he suffered a heart attack while on business in Japan. He didn't want to go to a Japanese hospital, opting instead to continue his trip and fly from Tokyo to Los Angeles to Austin. A friend took one look at him and got him to a hospital in Austin. He had a quadruple bypass about a week later in Spokane.

I lived in Dallas at the time. I found out the day after he arrived in Austin. It was the first time I lost my temper with him since leaving for college. Jesus Christ, Dad! What the hell were you thinking?

I didn't realize it then, but that day our relationship entered a new and inevitably final stage. He's gotten old, I've said to my wife over and over. He knows. I see it. We spend much of our time together now talking about my responsibilities when he's gone.

I lecture him in ways he never did me about slowing down, relaxing, taking it easy. He protests less now. The conversation doesn't center anymore on "I'll die if I don't work." Now, it just centers on dying. Just a few weeks ago, we talked about whether I should take his ashes back to India to be scattered.

"I don't know. You decide," he said. Now he's the one sitting on the hearth, and I'm the one sitting in the blue chair.

Now I'm the designated adult.

Color me dense, but I have just realized the fundamental shift in our relationship. This man who gave me everything -- from my Type A behavior, to my love of curry, to my insistence on wearing suits on casual Fridays, to building a code of conduct and morality that informs every decision I make -- needs me to carry on. Now, perhaps, it is my turn to rub his feet.

This story by one of the most distinguished of American newspaper editors, appeared in Little India magazine and The Oregonian.

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