The little things that make the world go 'round

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Subhash Mehra scanned the crowd milling around Stepan Field on a hot August evening in 1992. He heard picnickers telling stories in clipped English and dusted-off foreign languages, saw people grinning and shaking hands, their paper plates neatly arranged with burgers and beans and corn on the cob. Food as familiar as the Golden Dome to some; to others, no less exotic.

It was the end of international student orientation. Parents, braced to say ambivalent goodbyes, were taking comfort in a meal with the local families who had signed on to try to make their children’s lives a little less precarious in the months ahead.

2015: A rare reunion, back where it all began, photo by Matt Cashore ’94

But Subhash Mehra wasn’t thinking about food. He was wondering how his son was going to survive four years in this strange place.

Something in this scene, he didn’t know what, would have to reassure him in the absence of a host family who hadn’t shown. Having flown 8,000 miles to drop off his son at an American university unknown to him a year earlier, he needed a sign to tell him that the boy, 17, sitting with his mother but looking very much alone beneath his new Notre Dame ballcap, wouldn’t hop the first flight back to Mumbai.

When he saw it, he started walking toward an older American couple. That they, too, were alone was promising, but that wasn’t what caught Mehra’s eye.

It’s that they were holding hands.

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Twenty-one years later, another meal. Anita Garg finds herself once more in Bombay. She prefers the British name for Mumbai, the hometown she first left at age 19 for graduate study in New York. Seated with her at the posh Salt Water Café in December 2013 are a handful of Notre Dame alumni who are looking for something from this encounter, much like Subhash Mehra once did.

One of them is the boy in the ballcap, Dhiraj Mehra ’96, Subhash’s son, now in his late 30s the managing director of his family’s silk and garment company. Mehra listens intently as Garg, the director of Notre Dame International’s new India program, explains her task: Make sure the upcoming presidential visit of Father John Jenkins, CSC, to three premier colleges in Delhi and Mumbai is a success.

That means a million and one details, spotless first impressions and follow-up. Above all she knows it means making friends fast. That’s how things get done in India.

Garg, an expert in process improvement, has a scant two months until Father Jenkins boards the plane. She will work mostly from South Bend and needs feet on the ground in India. She remembers closing her appeal: “I challenge you to make my job easier.”

Intrigued with their alma mater’s interest in their country, the alums are ready with ideas. But at this point, the Notre Dame Club of India exists mostly on paper. Few of the 80-plus members on its email list have returned to Notre Dame or even heard much from South Bend since commencement.

Things are about to change in ways they can’t yet fathom. But Dhiraj Mehra, his father’s son, sees something in Garg’s position, qualifications and personality that has him ready to act.

Commitment.

Two things Mehra knows as they step out into the balmy Mumbai night. The president of Notre Dame is coming, guaranteed. And if he wants Garg to succeed and an India program to grow, he will do everything in his power to help.

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Pat Gerbeth’s memory of that summer picnic in 1992 begins with a forceful but charming Indian gentleman doing most of the talking. She managed to explain how she and her husband, Dick ’62, were waiting for a Chinese student who hadn’t turned up. They were disappointed. They hadn’t known what to expect. They just wanted to help a student out.

“Would you like to meet my son?” Subhash asked.

He returned with his wife, Nameeta, and Dhiraj. Soon Dhiraj was climbing into the Gerbeths’ Toyota Camry, bound for their farmhouse in nearby Niles, Michigan. The Mehras followed. Dick says Subhash wanted to see where the Gerbeths lived, how they lived, what this American couple was about.

Everything confirmed Subash’s first impression: Travel as far around the world as you like. It means something when a couple married 30 years holds hands.

The next day, with Dhiraj settled into Zahm Hall and ready for classes, Subhash and Nameeta Mehra flew home, confident they had found a family who would take care of their son until he found his way.

Dhiraj did come close to leaving ND after that first semester. It took time for him to commit.

It’s amazing he came to Notre Dame at all. The school was Dhiraj’s seventh choice, another place to send his SAT scores for free. His father would approve. Catholic schools in India are known for academic excellence, moral discipline, parental care.

But: “I don’t think anyone in India knew about Notre Dame,” Dhiraj says. “Still don’t. It’s still a task [in India] to get people to understand that this is the school that it is.”

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Garg spent most of Father Jenkins’ tour of India in February 2014 praying nothing would go wrong.

Her prayers were answered, largely in the form of her own persistence and Dhiraj’s cooperation. There was nothing Jenkins wanted to achieve that didn’t happen, she says. No meeting that wasn’t successful.

The entourage, which included J. Nicholas Entrikin, associate provost for internationalization; Jonathan Noble, assistant provost for Asia; and Father Bill Lies, CSC, ’93M.Div., the University’s vice president for mission engagement and church affairs, quickly got to business.

Jenkins gave talks at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, both small, excellent academic institutions with a focus similar to Notre Dame’s upon students’ formation as leaders of character.

Jenkins also met with officials at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, recently ranked as India’s top public university. He returned to South Bend having signed agreements with each school to develop exchange programs.

By June, St. Xavier’s was hosting eight Notre Dame undergraduates for a summer pilot program now being fine-tuned for 2016.

Garg and her husband, Umesh, a professor of experimental nuclear physics, have hosted at least one party for Indian students at their home each year since 1983. For nearly a decade they have talked up the idea of Notre Dame involvement in India. Asked why, Anita Garg’s elevator pitch is ready.

“English-speaking, comfortable with the Catholic tradition. Strong academics” at the primary and secondary levels, she says. And, she adds, “Ability to pay that’s growing.”

One day, when there are enough engaged, successful Indian alumni to support a robust scholarship fund, that last factor might not be so important. One day.

For now, she has Notre Dame programming off to a fast start. Garg says Dhiraj, who balances deft discipline with infectious personal warmth, is the deal volunteer. He coordinated an elegant alumni reception for Jenkins in downtown Mumbai. He gives ND talks to students, counselors and principals at top Mumbai high schools. “He’s as passionate about India, and Notre Dame in India, as I am,” she says.

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“It was a blessing the Chinese girl didn’t show up,” Dick Gerbeth reflects with a chuckle one afternoon this past spring. He and Pat are sitting in the lobby of the Ivy Court hotel with Dhiraj, who has come to town for the Alumni Association’s leadership conference. “And our relationship, it just was a wonderful thing.”

Not a Sunday afternoon went by during Dhiraj’s four student years when he and the Gerbeths didn’t meet.

A Hindu, Dhiraj frequently would join them for Mass if he woke up in time or wait outside the Basilica if he didn’t. They’d go for lunch, often with Pat’s Aunt Ann and Dick’s mother, whom Dhiraj called “Ma” just as Dick did. They tried different restaurants and agreed that Barnaby’s on Grape Road was best for pizza.

Thanksgivings, birthdays, anniversaries all found Dhiraj at the Gerbeths’. Pat baked him a cake for his birthday in November, the day after her own. She sent cookies and brownies back to Zahm and gave Dhiraj a bucket of popcorn for Christmas, in time for exams. By the end of the first semester, as most international students and host families drifted apart, the basic tasks of settling in complete, a friendship transcending age, religion, country and culture, grounded in mutual respect, was beginning to bloom.

Thirty Indian students will visit Notre Dame over the next three years. The hope is they’ll fall in love with the place while they’re here.

All the same, that first autumn was a lonely time for Dhiraj. He studied constantly, checked out books for pleasure and typically ate lunch with the only other Indian undergrad he knew. Finding things in common with American students — even in Zahm, even with everyone being as friendly as he could have hoped — hadn’t happened.

Discouraged, he left for winter break wondering if he would return. But he didn’t want to disappoint his family — or himself. He determined to try again, deciding not to be so shy, deciding there was more to college than books. The key would be taking risks and reaching out to others, just as Pat and Dick Gerbeth were reaching out to him.

That spring semester, friendships came more easily. He ate lunch with hallmates, signed up for Zahm’s Nintendo football tournament and went to basketball games. He dated — “a lot” — but, knowing he wouldn’t marry an American, always took a different girl to the dinners and dances.

Eventually he tutored athletes, worked in the DeBartolo computer lab and built websites in those early Internet days. Whenever his grades slipped a bit, the calls came from Subhash — not to Dhiraj but to Dick. “Giving me hell to give him hell!” Dick thunders.

Each May, Dick would park his red truck outside Zahm to pick up Dhiraj’s gear and store it over the summer. It was just one more thing the Gerbeths felt they could do to make a student’s life easier.

“The reason I came here is because it was a Catholic school,” Dhiraj says. “And the reason I stayed on is because of Dick and Pat.”

When May 1996 rolled around, Subhash insisted Dhiraj set aside two graduation tickets for the Gerbeths. But the story Dhiraj wants to tell today is what happened the next day at the IHOP.

“My father and Dick started crying. They were hugging each other and crying, and the rest of us were fine.

“They probably had an inkling that there was only so much that they were going to see of each other.”

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The vision for Notre Dame in India is evolving, but several initiatives are in place. Within three months of Father Jenkins’ February 2014 visit, five IIT Bombay undergraduates were flying to Notre Dame to work with engineering and science professors on six-week research projects. A semester study-abroad program at St. Stephen’s in Delhi, India’s capital, is in the works. Anything more ambitious, Garg says, will have to wait while Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs takes shape.

Meanwhile, Garg cultivates interest in South Asian studies on campus. She convinced Professor Amitava Dutt of political science to teach the first course on India she’s seen in a while. Working with the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures and the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, Garg secured a Fulbright grant that will bring an instructor to Notre Dame this year to offer a course in Hindi, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Her primary job is to build Notre Dame name-recognition in her vast homeland. Most promising: One alumnus stepped up with money to send rising seniors from 10 of the top high schools in Mumbai and Delhi to campus for a two-week summer enrichment program. Thirty students will visit over the next three years, starting this month.

Students have come from Brazil, China and other countries for similar Notre Dame experiences. The hope is they’ll fall in love with the place while they’re here.

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After that post-Commencement brunch at IHOP, Dick Gerbeth and Subhash Mehra never saw each other again. Subhash died almost three years ago.

Dhiraj Mehra went home to work in the family business. Fifteen years passed. He had no contact with Notre Dame. But he stayed in close touch with the Gerbeths, speaking with them by phone several times a year.

“But,” Dhiraj says, pausing to choose his words. “I think there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Dick and Pat and they are not in my prayers. And there’s not a day that goes by that they don’t think of me and I am not in their prayers.”

They are family.

In 2011, Dhiraj finally returned to campus because he’d promised his aunt that if she sent her son to Notre Dame, he would attend his graduation.

He brought along his wife, Superna, and their 7-year-old son, Samay. They visited the Basilica, stopped in at Zahm and saw everything that had made his four years special. And they made sure to see the Gerbeths six times in six days. Dick and Samay hit it off so well that Dhiraj barely had time to say hello.

Today the Gerbeths have been married 54 years. They still hold hands.

The Family Friendship Program, as the host family program is now called, is going strong.

Dhiraj’s cousin, Anmol Malhotra ’11, was raised a little differently from most Indian kids — even those who, like him, lived in New Jersey. He grew up wearing ND hats and T-shirts, and his family knew well about the Catholic school in Indiana with the football team and the distinctive French name.

When it came time to apply to college, Anmol’s brother didn’t get in to Notre Dame. But Anmol did. It was his first choice.


John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.


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