A Family Affair

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Kapoor arrived by bus from New York in autumn 1960, his belongings packed into one suitcase, his parents’ parting words of advice ringing in his ears: “Go. Study hard. Learn. Be a good person.”

By Ken Garfield

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An international friendship, a half-century connection between a young man from India and a family from the American South, began one day on the Davidson campus.

The years cannot dim the memory. Dr. Hugh Verner ’40 remembers walking into the Ovens College Union that autumn day in 1960 and spotting the student from India playing Ping-Pong. “What a string bean,” Verner thought to himself.

The young fellow from India, Ashok Kapoor ’61, remembers looking out of the corner of his eye during the game and spotting this older fellow coming his way, wearing a pair of plaid pants that stand out to this day.

“He introduced himself,” Kapoor says. “It was Hugh Verner. Even now, I joke with him: ‘Did you save those trousers?’”

The loud trousers are long gone, except in happy memories. Verner responds with equal mischief that the string bean has filled out over the years. What has remained is a bond that surpasses anything these two men could have imagined when Davidson College brought them together: an international student and a family to serve as his host, a relationship intended to last one year that has lasted a lifetime.

“I fell in love with him,” Verner says.

More than a half-century later, Kapoor says, “The feeling is mutual.”

As they sit in Verner’s apartment at the Deerf ield Episcopal Retirement Community in Asheville and share their story, the connection between the two is palpable, and poignant. As Verner, who turns 92 in April, struggles to recall a Davidson detail from long ago, Kapoor gently intrudes to say, “Don’t worry, Hugh, it will come back.” As Kapoor talks of Verner and his late wife, Danny, being a second set of parents, Verner smiles and speaks of Kapoor as his fourth son. There’s David, Jon, and Scott. And there’s Kookie, 70 years old now, living in Princeton, N.J., with his wife, Susan.

To this day, the Verners call him Kookie, a North Carolina version of Kuka, the nickname Kapoor carried with him when he left India for the first time, bound for a little college town just north of Charlotte.

Why Not Davidson?
The youngest of three children, Kapoor grew up in a tight-knit home in New Delhi. His parents, Chaman and Rani, were forever stressing the power of education to their children. By the time Kapoor earned his bachelor of arts degree in English literature from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, in New Delhi, he ached to learn more. And he hungered for a taste of American life.

Funny how life turns. His father, who was in the printing and publishing business, happened to be a Rotarian. One day at a Rotary meeting at The Imperial hotel in New Delhi, Chaman Kapoor met a man named Malcolm Williamson, Jr. Williamson, then 25, had graduated from Davidson in 1955 and was spending a year in India as a Rotary Fellow. Chaman Kapoor told him of his son’s interest in studying in the United States. Williamson, a retired lawyer now, shared the words that would change two families’ lives: “Why not take a look at Davidson?”

When he did take a look at Davidson—he had not even heard of it at that point—Kapoor was taken by the fact that the college was offering one-year scholarships to international students.

The Richardson Foreign Student Scholarships were established in 1958 to broaden Davidson’s horizons by bringing more students to campus from all corners of the globe. Davidson has welcomed international students since 1890, many sent by Presbyterian missionaries. But the arrival of Richardson Scholars expanded the student community’s global presence. From 1958 to 1968, when the program was phased out and scholarships offered to international students came through other channels, some 125 Richardson Scholars came to Davidson from around the world. Davidson’s global commitment continues: just last year, the college announced the Alvarez Scholars Program, offering financial aid for international students. Of the 1,700 students on campus during the 2010–11 academic year, some 100 come from 42 foreign lands, three of them as Alvarez Scholars.

Davidson has become known for the warmth with which it embraces its guests. One way is by arranging for local families to serve as hosts once international students arrive. In essence, the family stands in for loved ones far away, welcoming their student for a home-cooked meal, hosting them on school breaks, taking them to worship, being there when those inevitable pangs of loneliness strike. It’s even become part of the brand of the men’s basketball team, whose bench has been filled for years with international student athletes. What Wildcat hoops fan hasn’t been touched on Senior Day in Belk Arena by the sight of foreign-born players walking across the court with their host family to shake Coach Bob McKillop’s hand—“Dad” getting a handshake from McKillop, “Mom” a bouquet of roses?

Good People
Kapoor arrived by bus from New York in autumn 1960, his belongings packed into one suitcase, his parents’ parting words of advice ringing in his ears: “Go. Study hard. Learn. Be a good person.”

A 19-year-old away from his native land for the first time, literally dropped off in a small college town in the heart of the South, his eyes could barely take it all in. “The thing I remember,” Kapoor says, “was that everything was so new. Everything was different. I was young and very enthusiastic and serious and excited.”

Enter the older fellow in the plaid pants.

Verner grew up in Forest City, where his father was a doctor with a fascinating sidelight: he owned the local baseball team. Once, in the mid-1930s, Verner bought ballpark lights from Branch Rickey, the Major League executive who later broke the color line by bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues. Hugh Verner came to Davidson in 1936 to get an education, and play a little center field for the baseball team. (Before he shared details of a life devoted to family, medicine, his church, Davidson, and Kapoor, Verner made sure to mention that he belted a home run in his first at bat in a Wildcats uniform.)

Davidson set Verner on a course to distinction: The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. The Army. After med school, back to Charlotte to practice internal medicine and co-found Mecklenburg Medical Group, still a flourishing practice. In 1945, after a five-month courtship, he married Margaret “Danny” Oberdorfer, who was born and raised in Southern India as the daughter of Lutheran missionaries. They met in Ohio, where he was a doctor and she was studying to be a nurse at Case Western Reserve University. It was a match made in health care: they first laid eyes on one another in an infirmary in Cleveland, where the young doctor was sent to check on an ailing coed.

India, Hugh Verner said, remained his wife’s “home away from home” until her death in 2008 at age 85.

It doesn’t take a Davidson degree to see where this is going.

When the college needed a host family to “adopt” one of its first Richardson International Scholars, their India connection made the Verners an obvious choice to embrace Kapoor. From that first encounter at the Ping-Pong table in the old union, where E. H. Little Library now stands, their lives together took off.

Phone calls covering everything from “How are you?” to “Are you studying?” They’d pick him up and bring him home to Charlotte for dinner—often it was curry that Danny Verner learned to prepare during her years in India. Visits to the Verner home on Sherwood Avenue in Myers Park often included Kapoor taking walks around the campus of what is now Queens University of Charlotte, which happened to be all girls at the time. “That’s off the record!” Kapoor joked. They’d worship at the Verners’ church, Myers Park Presbyterian.

Even though Kapoor was born Hindu, they shared a theology: love, they agreed, is the face of God.

Once, when Kapoor needed new shoes and couldn’t afford a pair of cordovan loafers he admired, Verner quietly signaled the salesman over and told him he’d cover the cost. Thirty years later, on one of his 100-plus business trips to Switzerland, Kapoor repaid the debt. He had a pair of Bally shoes custom-made for Verner and presented them to him by saying, “Hugh, thanks for the cordovan loafers.” Verner wore them to Kapoor’s wedding to Susan in 2001, whom he wed after he lost his first wife, Catherine, to cancer 12 years earlier.

Chaman Kapoor died years before his son’s marriage to Susan. Rani Kapoor, who has since died, was not well enough to make it to her son’s wedding. So Hugh and Danny stood in that day as parents of the groom.

As they look back together to 1960 and their first year as friends, it doesn’t seem so long ago.

“We just seemed to hit it off from the beginning,” Verner said.

“My mind drifts back to those days,” Kapoor said. “What I saw in them was what I believe to be the very essence of good people.”

A Gesture of Family
What makes this story, and their friendship, all the more remarkable is that what began so long ago continues to this day.

Kapoor spent just one year at Davidson, 1960 to 1961, where he focused on business courses and even got published in The Davidsonian, the student newspaper. His byline read Kookie Kapoor, Richardson Scholar. One of his stories explored the Eastern alternatives to the Western-style handshake.

Snapshots from his Davidson experience remain vivid: the discussion and debate that marks life in Davidson classrooms— more vibrant, he said, than the lectures and note-taking of school in India; watching the Nixon-Kennedy TV debates from the basement of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house and being mesmerized by the political theater; going home with classmates for weekends and holidays.

He particularly recalls one trip to Tennessee.

“We went quail hunting. I had not shot a gun before.”

Since he had already earned a college degree back home in India, Kapoor enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill after his one year at Davidson. There he earned first a master’s and then a Ph.D. in business administration. He moved to New York, where he spent 14 years teaching at New York University before launching a successful career as an international business consultant, focusing on negotiating strategies for corporations. His work has taken him to Scandinavia, Korea, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and home to India. He has two daughters from his first marriage—Celina Callahan, 36, of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Sonya Turner, 39, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., a member of the Davidson College Class of 1994 with a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish.

Turner made up her own mind where to go to school, of course. But the impact that the Verners made on her father and their family carried tender weight.

“When my father talked about Davidson,” Kapoor’s daughter says, “he talked about Hugh Verner.”

While Kapoor was settling in Manhattan and then nearby Princeton, the Verners were putting down deep roots in Charlotte, where they raised their three boys—David, 64, Scott, 60, and Jon, 57. Verner practiced medicine while remaining active at Davidson, serving as an alumni representative on the Board of Trustees from 1969 to 1976. While on the board, he voted with the majority to admit women.

With a twinkle in his eyes, he said that when he sees a young woman walking across campus, he’ll sometimes introduce himself by saying, “I voted for you.”

Though retired, settled into a retirement community in Asheville, and dealing with the health issues that come with nearing 92, he remains very involved with Davidson . Since 2003, he’s been a lifetime member of the college’s Board of Visitors, coming to campus once a year to keep up to date with college initiatives and programs.

Different paths, for sure.

And yet, separated by more than 20 years in age, one from the South and the other an immigrant settled in the North, one a doctor and the other a businessman and international traveler, the bond between them remains unbroken.

They talk by phone several times a month and visit a few times each year. Kapoor says Verner pours a good Scotch, the better to catch up with.

The day Kapoor’s first wife fell ill, his first call was to the Verners. It was the same the day she died.

“Hugh and Danny.”

Sonya Turner remembers her mom’s death in August 1989, and her growing worry that she, her father and sister might have to spend the coming Christmas holidays alone.

Not so.

“Hugh and Danny made sure we had a Christmas,” she said. “It was such a gesture of family.”

And in those times when life’s inevitable tumult intrudes and Verner and Kapoor cannot connect for a few months, it does not matter. The warmth returns the moment they hear each other’s voice on the phone, the instant the door opens and they meet again.

And to think: It all began when a young man from India was playing Ping-Pong in the old college union, turned his head and saw a fellow in plaid trousers coming his way to introduce himself and say, “Welcome.”

“It may have been just a year,” Kapoor says, “but it’s really been 50 years.”

Ken Garfield, former religion editor at The Charlotte Observer, is director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. His writing has been featured in The New York Times, Charlotte Magazine, The Christian Century, and Duke Divinity School’s Divinity Magazine. Ken and Sharon Garfield’s son and daughter graduated from Davidson: Matt in 2004, Ellen in 2007.

Photo Credits: ©istockphoto.com/Tommounsey • Chris Keane

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