By Gil. Sun, 23 Sep 2001
Our friend and classmate, Vinode Kumar Sawhney died today in Hawaii. He was 59 years old and is survived by his wife Nancy and his two daughters, Ruby of Portland, Oregon and Delia of Massachusetts. As you know he asked us to conduct an internet memorial. He also asked those of us who drink to have a glass of 12 year old Scotch in his memory. I have my glass of Glenlivet beside me as I write.
He was born in December of 1941 in the Punjab where his father held a number of important posts over the years, including, I think, being Chief Electrical Engineer. In 1943, his mother and infant sister died. In 1947 he came to Woodstock for Lower Kindergarten. There are several other classmates who started at Woodstock earlier but no one else, I think, who was with the class of 1959 for all thirteen years. One of my earliest memories of him is from about 1948 when his father came to visit him so he could meet his new stepmother. I remember that his father had heart disease which kept him from ever again venturing up to the altitude of Woodstock so Vinode was in boarding for his entire schooling. I have memories of Vinode from both Ridgewood and the Hostel. Our freshman year, Vinode, Hugh, Jack and I shared a room. I was drifting off to sleep in the upper bunk one night when the bed began to shake and strange sounds of pain started coming from Vinode in the bunk below me. After some minutes of my asking him what was wrong the moans gave way to giggles and he was finally able to tell me that he had dislocated his big toe and had just gotten it back in place. By a strange coincidence, he and Hugh, the first two of the boys in our class to die, were roommates all through high school. Vinode was extremely fond of spicy food and he used to turn his mashed potatoes black with pepper trying to liven up the bland dorm food. He was very active in the later high school years doing stage managing work especially with the lighting and electrical work in Parker Hall. In his senior year I remember him getting involved in debate (was it with some other school in Mussoorie?). The issue was whether or not the US should have dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and he took the affirmative side.
After high school he came to the US for college and went to Linfield, the small Baptist College in Oregon, where Willie, Dave Chance, Norm and I also went. Between his freshman and sophomore years he went back to Pennsylvannia where Frenchy and Joan Browne were living and spent the summer back there. He was a door to door lingerie salesman and worked at a White Tower hamburger place that summer. When he came back to Linfied I was surprised to find he had started smoking and had decided he was no longer a Christian. He had adopted this religion early in high school as the result of a religious experience while camped across from Pepperpot on the road down to the Uglar. For thanksgiving that year he and I and two other college classmates drove down to San Francisco. We had several adventures on the way including running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. I remember him hitching a ride at three in the morning with a truck driver to go and get gas. After our sophomore year of college he got a reporting job with the Portland Reporter. This was a paper started by the newspaper union during a long strike against the two regular Portland papers, the Oregonian and the Journal. He did not return to college that fall but kept working instead because he had met the woman who became his first wife and who is the mother of his two daughters. When the strike was finally settled and the Reporter shutdown Vinode found a job with a paper in the eastern Oregon town of Baker. After a few years he found work in Portland again editing the in house publications of the electronics firm Tektronix. Dave Chance and I made several trips up to Portland to see him and his family during the late 60s. One of these trips was to also see Jack Day who was stopping off on his way to Vietnam.
During the 70s Vinode went through a painful divorce, a remarriage and another divorce. He used to come down to Eugene during that time and he would cook wonderful Indian khanas for me and my friends. These were four and five hour cooking marathons punctuated with repeated claims that dinner was almost ready! The food was very good and very spicy and woe betide the person who bit into one of the chilis he added to the meal. I remember one of my friends sitting on the floor of my kitchen drinking water and repeating over and over "my eyebrows are burning, my eyebrows are burning"!
Vinode reached a turning point in his life during this time when he had to go into court as the result of a DUI arrest. This experience caused him to turn his life around in a way that I have always greatly admired. He went back to college and finished his bachelor's degree and then went to law school, got his JD and became a lawyer. At some point during this process he met his wife Nancy who worked in the court system. In the late 80s they moved to Saipan where he was part of a law firm for a while before setting up his own practice. Unfortunately, at about this same time he had begun to suffer from the heart disease that finally claimed his life. At the time of the 1999 reunion he told me his doctor had told him he had about two years to live which unfortunately turned out to be true. After that reunion he closed his law office in Saipan and moved to Hawaii where he continued to do volunteer legal work even as his illness progressed.
He was a wonderful, kind and caring friend for 54 years and I was fortunate to have known him. He was fierce in his love for his wife and daughters. His father always resented the fact that he had lost his son to America. Back in the 70s when he first took his daughters to India to meet their grandfather his father wanted him to leave his daughters in America, move back to India and marry an Indian woman. I remember when he told me this story how outraged he was at the thought of leaving his daughters. Here's to you, Vinode. I shall remember your easy going ways, your giggle, your fine cooking, your love of life and so much more. May you rest in peace.
GilBack to the top
By Dick. Tue, 25 Sep 2001
Thanks, Gil for your loving tribute to Vinode. He certainly was the most 'Woodstock' of our class - continuously enrolled, hardly ever 'out-of-boarding'. I used to feel jealous of his being Frenchie Browne's right hand man, but I suppose the Brownes were very nearly surrogate parents for him in the absence of a mother and with a father unable to take the altitude of Mussoorie. That kind of mentoring/modeling is so valuable in our formative years. Also envious of his faith, while I was plagued with secret doubts and rebelliousness about what I was supposed to believe. Did he maintain connection with the Brownes after that summer?
I visited him in Baker, eastern Oregon a few years after he left Linfield, but then was away from the Northwest for a couple of decades and lost track of him until the Port Townsend reunion. From what he told us then, his work as a lawyer in Saipan would do any social activist proud. As I recall, Saipan (a US Trust Territory N. of Guam) was a haven for sweatshop operators, who would bring foreign workers to produce 'made in the USA' goods but keep labor costs as low as in Asia. Workers got deeply into debt to get there, and most of their nominal wages were sucked up as interest and in room and board charges. Vinode's firm successfully fought workers' cases to restore their freedom and recover their long-overdue US-level back wages.
Long gaps between my various brief times with Vinode, did not dim the warmth and enthusiasm of his greetings and the instant ease and rapport I felt in his presence. A good man and dear friend.
Vinode, if my view of heaven turns out to be right, and I don't mess up, I'm sure you'll be there to welcome me. DickBack to the top
By David. 26 Sep 2001
Gil: Having been at work on my roof for the last two months, almost without letup, it seems too difficult to put together the memorial essay VK deserves, so it will have to be some notes.
Foremost of his characteristics was his unstinting generosity. I think of all the times he took us out for a meal at an Indian restaurant, not to mention all the times he cooked for us. Several times he and Nancy went out of their way to visit us in Moscow and Bellingham. His legal work seemed to be mainly directed at helping the downtrodden, for example the exploited foreign workers from China and the Philippines in Saipan.
I believe he was cut off from the inheritance from his father by his stepmother and her offspring. But he did nothing, so far as I know, to recover it. His father may have disowned him, I don't remember that clearly.
Though VK had a number of very tough episodes in his life, more than most people must face, including his failing health, he rarely expressed discouragement and was almost always brave and optimistic, unwilling to burden those around him. His cheerful smile is one of those things I often call to mind when mustering courage. His willingness to take financial risks is something I studied carefully and referred to while deciding the best course to take in my own affairs.
VK's cheerfulness was manifest that time we climbed Top Tiba in the wind and rain one monsoon in about sixth standard. I think you and McEldowney were there. Was that the time McEldowney saw the panther on the trail during the descent? Anyway, I remember clearly looking at VK clutching the wet grass for a handhold in the driving rain, similing all the while as he kept sliding back down the mountain. His loping walk along Tehri Road showed determination and persistence, especially since he had the habit of looking straight ahead toward his goal.
He was an ethical man throughout his life. Once he admonished me for behaving badly; I think I had addressed someone in anger. He said something like: "I never expected you to do that!" I was surprised that he was watching me that closely, and though not pleased to be so rebuked, always remembered that incident, as if VK were a guardian angel keeping an eye on my behavior. Never once did I see him angry, or insult anyone. His mild criticisms were couched in humor, nothing more.
Ultimately he rejected Christianity because certain people who had been his religious mentors seemed in the end to fail him and cut him adrift. This happened during that summer in Philadelphia, as you said. This came as a big shock that Christians would fail to deliver on the ethical side.
I was going to write VK a long letter but his death came sooner than I expected. It is like losing a brother, and now he is among the small pantheon of guardian spirits who watch over my family. Nancy, Ruby, Delia, and his his grandson are fortunate that he was such a noble man.
DavidBack to the top
Last update: Friday, 05 October 2001.