Interviewer: Par Pandit, son
Interview Date: November 20, 2011
Experiences: Immigration from India, Santa Clara County Water District, Acculturation,Diversity
The Life of Thakor "Joe" Pandit
This paper is about the life of my father Joe Pandit - a civil engineer who came to the United States and served as a Santa Clara Valley Water District Director for 10 years. All the information gathered is from an interview with my father and mother, Vanleela Pandit, on November 20, 2011 in Saratoga, CA unless otherwise noted.
Thakor “Joe” Pandit was born on April 22, 1937 in the village town of Gana in Gujuart, India. He was the youngest of six children born to Bhikhabhai Pandya (born 1888), an educator and school principal, and Chanchalben Pandya (born 1892), a housewife. Bhikhabhai was 50 and Chanchalben was 46 years old when he was born. The middle brother Rasik Pandya had died before Joe was born. Joe was very attached to the youngest sister Hansa who died at the age when 13 when he was five years old. His other siblings were his oldest brother Shankerlal Pandit (known as S. B. Pandit), and his older sisters Narmadaben and Nirmalabe. All of his living siblings were at least 20 years older than Joe.
Joe lived with his parents until the age of 14; then he moved in with his brother who was a professor at a university in town of Vallabh Vidhyanagar. Joe went to three different primary schools followed by three different high schools. After high school, he completed a Bachelor degree in Civil Engineering at Sardar Patel University in Vidhyanagar then earned a Masters degree in Hydraulics and Dam Engineering at University of Pune. He then returned to Vidhyanager to be a Associate Professor at the same university where his brother worked. At the age of 20, in 1957, he was introduced to Vanleela Vyas, a 17 year old teenager from Baroda. The meeting was set up by Vanleela’s maternal uncle and S.B. Pandit. The very next day they were engaged and married shortly thereafter. Joe did not want to marry since he was still attending college but agreed anyway.
In 1965, while teaching at Vighyanager University, one of the head professors and Joe’s mentor, Professor B. M. Jani, advised him to go the United States for further training. They wanted him to get his PhD, then return to the university to help set up a new engineering department. This professor had attended University of Illinois and told Joe that the United States is the best place to further his education.
My father researched and applied to about seven colleges including MIT, Illinois, Wisconsin, Cal Tech, and U.C. Berkeley. He was accepted to all of them but wanted to attend the University of Iowa for two reasons. One was that he wanted to work with a famous civil engineering professor named Hunter Rouse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_Rouse). The second reason was that he had very little money and Iowa was the only university that offered him a teaching assistant position prior to his arrival to the United States. Joe discussed with Prof. Jani, his brother S.B. Pandit, his father, and his wife about leaving for the United States. Although his father had reservations and was against the idea, he agreed because it was a good career move. Two friends helped him make the arrangements to go the United States including coming up with the airfare. He left in September of 1966.
When he boarded the plane, he had about $8 in money. That was the maximum the Indian Government allowed you to convert to American dollars when you left the country. Joe had a friend named Mahendra Patel who was also going aboard to study in New York. They went together to the United States via Hong Kong, Japan, and Hawaii before arriving in San Francisco. Mahendra’s brother wired them $200 while in Hong Kong so they could do some traveling. Once they got to San Francisco, another friend’s brother gave them money to take a bus ride to Iowa. Mahendra continued onward to New York.
When Joe arrived in Iowa, he had $2 remaining. Two contacts he had in Iowa had already made lodging arrangements for him on the campus so he did not have to stay in the dorms. Joe immediately went to the financial aid department the very next day to get a loan.
Before coming to the United States, Joe and Vanleela had had two children. In 1962, they had had a baby boy name Parimal. In 1963, they had had a baby girl named Punita. From the time Joe and Vaneela were married they were often living apart as he attended or taught college while she care for the children and his or her parents. The trip to the United States was yet another temporary separation.
During the 1966-67 school year, Joe finished his Masters degree in Hydraulics and Water Resources at Iowa. During that time, he started working for the Army Corp of Engineers in Rock Island, Illinois. It was there that he acquired his nickname “Joe.” The Army had to get a special visa for him to work there from Washington D.C. as foreigners without citizenship were not allowed to work. He remembers people in the Midwest as being friendly and helpful. Once when he had a flat tire and did not know what to do, the Director of his company saw him stranded in a snowstorm and changed his tire for him.
Joe struggled initially with the coursework at Iowa because the teaching methods were so different from India. In the United States, the professors generally made assignments and did not go into detail about how to solve problems. The students were left to figure it out themselves. In India, the professors went into great detail on almost all problems. However, in India your grades were determined by a single test at the end of the school year. This test was designed by an instructor somewhere else in India so you had to hope your teacher covered everything that was on the syllabus. In the United States, they had intermediate stages to assess your knowledge including tests, reports, and papers.
In February of 1968, Vanleela along with Parimal and Punita arrived from India in Moline, Illinois where Joe was now living. The children started 1st grade and Kindergarten. In January 1969 the youngest daughter Priti was born.
After suffering through two cold winters in 1968 and 1969, Vanleela demanded that the family move to a warmer climate (V. Pandit). Joe got a job offer from a company in Florida but he chose to accept an offer from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. He got the offer after a twohour phone interview but no face-to-face interview.
They left in mid-June 1969 and spent about 20 days coming to California. They travelled through most of the western states by car and saw every major water dam along the way. They also visited several national parks and Disneyland.
Before they left Moline, Joe had called the phone operator and asked for anyone with the last name of Patel or Shah in San Jose. These are the two most common Gujuarti last names. The operator found two numbers and he called them. One of them was Jayant Patel who also worked at the water district. On the day they arrived in San Jose, Jayant told them about a vacant apartment in their complex in the Edenvale area. Joe and Vanleela took the apartment and began their life in San Jose. Joe and Jayant continue to be friends today.
In 1969, San Jose was growing and the population reached about 450,000 in 1970. It was only 204,196 in the 1960 census (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Jose,_California). There were orchards everywhere. Joe and Van bought their first home in 1971 in Almaden Valley, and Vanleea went to work in 1973 as a PC board assembler to help the family financially.
Joe worked at the Santa Clara Valley Water District as a staff engineer for the next 13 years (1969-82). He generally liked his job and co-workers. However, during these years he offered suggestions on how to improve projects or processes which were generally ignored. He also observed that upper management was almost completely white and there were no minorities in supervisory positions. Joe strongly felt that if an individual were qualified and worked hard then he or she should be given opportunity to advance their careers and prove themselves. This was not happening at the water district. He threatened to run for the position of Director of the water district. His superiors did not take him seriously, so he ran. He won the seat from District 1 (includes Almaden Valley, Blossom Valley, Gilroy, and Morgan Hill) running on the platform of being a Civil Engineer who was aware of and knew how to address the water related problems. He was re-elected again in 1986 and 1990.
During most of these years (1983-1993), there were four engineers on the Water District Broad - Joe Pandit, Bob Gross, Joe Donohue and Patrick Ferraro. The first recommendation from Joe was to hire an outside consultant to review the hiring practices of the water district. This consultant interviewed many minority engineers and found that indeed there was discrimination in promotions and job opportunities. Previously many of these minority engineers were reluctant to speak up because they didn’t think management would care. The board made policy changes and within three years the issue had been addressed. Joe is very proud of this change. Today, many of the supervisors at the water district are now minorities.
Another issue that concerned Joe and several board members was how money was being spent. There was over staffing on certain projects that were not high priority or essential while other more important projects were understaffed. The district was also hiring too many consultants. These issues were addressed and resolved. However, these same problems exist again today.
In 2011, Joe thinks the Board is overspending again and needs more and better information. There are also not enough engineers on the board. However, Joe approves of the current General Manager - Beau Goldie - whom he considers very conscientious and effective. Another issue that concerned him was that only 5 of the 7 Board members were elected. The other 2 members were appointed by the County Supervisors. He thought all of them should have been elected. All board positions became elected around 2009.
When Joe Pandit got elected, he became only the second East Asian Indian ever to be elected to public office in the state of California and possibly in the United States as well. The first was Dalip Singh Saund from Yuba City in the 1956 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalip_Singh_Saund). Joe was the first Indian publicly elected in Santa Clara County.
Once he became a Board Member, Joe resigned from his position as staff engineer to avoid any conflict of interest. Since Board members' pay was very low, he worked as a consultant at other companies and water districts. Joe left his position as Board member in 1993 to return to being a staff engineer. He retired from the Water District in 1998. He ran again for the board in 1998 and 2006 for District #4 (Campbell and Santa Clara area) but was defeated by the incumbent Larry Wilson both times.
Since his retirement, Joe has been traveling and raising grandchildren. Joe and Vanleela have visited most of western Europe including Spain, France, and Portugal. They have seen Brazil, Bali, U.A.E, Australia, and New Zealand. Joe hopes to see South Africa, Kenya, and Machu Picchu if his health allows it. They have seven grandchildren - the first born in 1993 and the last two born in 2004.
Although he considers himself to have a good and happy life, Joe does have one regret. He wishes he had spent more time with his children. From 1968 to 1982, Joe and Vanleela were busy bringing relatives from India and helping them get settled here. The first two relatives were students whom they placed at colleges in St. Louis and New York City. After Joe became a citizen in 1974 and Vanleela in 1976, they began to bring direct relatives over. Most of them needed help learning English, getting trained, finding jobs, then finding homes of their own. All of them lived with them for 1-3 years before moving out on their own. Along with their jobs, Joe and Vanleela were kept busy for many years. They didn’t have much time for a true family life with just their children.
Assimilating into the American culture was also an issue for the Pandit family. While living in Illinois, Joe had American, Chinese, Filipino as well as Indian friends. However, after arriving in San Jose, they began to acquire more Indian friends. When the relatives started coming, their family and friends' circle became even more Indian. In addition, Joe and Vanleela were not comfortable with the liberal nature of American culture. While his children continued to be slowly assimilated in the American culture, Joe did not encourage it. However, since Joe was not particularly religious either he did not stress a purely Hindu life. That changed after Joe became a board member. The position required interacting with Americans on an on-going basis as well as several trips to Sacramento and conferences representing the water district. He truly enjoyed his time as board member.
His overall opinion of Americans is high. He considers them mostly honest and straight forward. Joe considers the lack of corruption on a day-to-day basis a major benefit of living in the United States. In addition, the many anti-discrimination laws passed in the 1970s, according to Joe, helped create a more level playing field for everyone. He did feel some discrimination after arriving in California. In fact, Joe thinks there was less discrimination when he was in Iowa and Illinois. While the discrimination was not obvious, he says he could feel it and sometimes see it in people’s behavior. However, compared to other minorities he considers the level of discrimination he suffered low.
This lack of discrimination may more with do the type of Indians immigrating to the United States in the 1960’s. There was a labor shortage for technical positions so the United State government encouraged professionals from Asia to immigrate there. Joe wishes that many of the Indians who have been here since the 1960s and 1970s would make a greater effort to assimilate to the American culture. He considers it too easy to stay within your culture and not make the effort although he understands the difficulty when language is a barrier. Joe didn’t really have a choice when it came it assimilating. None of his children married persons of the Hindu faith. Punita married Robert Bigler who is Mormon while Priti married Patrick O’Shaughnessy who is Roman Catholic. Parimal did marry an Indian woman from Mumbai named Rajul Udani but she is of the Jain faith.
Regarding business ventures, Joe developed a close friendship with Jagdish Shah, another civil engineer, whom he met back in 1969. Together and separately, they bought rental homes during the real estate boom of the 1970s-80s. Their investments proved to be successful and provided them with a better life.
Joe is now 74 years and dealing with health issues. He has had three surgeries for his heart and prostate. He also been dealing with diabetes for the last 20 years although it is now under control. Recently he has developed back problems which make it hard to walk for extended lengths.
Joe is in many ways a reflection of the Indian engineer who came in the 1960s. He completed an advanced degree and found a job so he did not return to India. He brought his family over, moved a couple times, made some good investments, and helped his family become established in this country. Where Joe was different was his 10-year service as a publicly elected water district board member. He has high regard for the United States and Americans in general.
UPDATE September 3, 2023: Thakor “Joe” Pandit passed away at his home on August 25, 2023. After years of diabetes and heart issues, Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer of 2021. The doctors did not think he would live past Thanksgiving that year. Joe survived an additional two years – long enough to see his first grandchild Niva Bigler get married. He is survived by his wife, all three children, and all seven grandchildren.
Pandit, Joe Thankor (Saratoga, California; November 20, 2011)
Pandit, Vanleela (Saratoga, California; November 20, 2011)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter_Rouse, November 23, 2011 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Jose,_California, November 27, 2011 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalip_Singh_Saund, November 26, 2011 http://www.valleywater.org/About/Board_of_Directors/District_Boundaries.aspx
De Anza Class: History 10
Instructor: Anne Hickling
Interview Date: November 20, 2011