It was 1973 and Balvinder Dabra had just earned his engineering degree. Still in his native India, a friend suggested they move to the United States where engineers were highly sought after.
Within two months, Dabra was in Atlanta ready to pursue the American dream, says his son Sanjay Dabra. The limit on the amount of money that could be taken out of India at the time was equal to about $40, he says.
He was met by acquaintances with about $10 in his pocket and got a job repairing tractors in about a week. A year later, he’d saved enough money to send for his wife Savita, and Sanjay, still a baby, to join him in the United States. Four years after arriving, he moved to Charleston and spent the rest of his life here.
Dabra, the man who was always smiling and looking for ways to help everyone else to do the same, died Jan. 30 at 69. The Muktsar, Punjab, India native, known for his vibrant personality, was a founder of the Indian Association of Greater Charleston.
He was known around Charleston as a businessman, having owned an Indian grocery store, a gas station, liquor store and as many as eight Subway sandwich shops, says son Dr. Sundeep Dabra. For 22 of his 35 years in Charleston, Dabra was an engineer with Evans Rule, putting to use the degree he earned at Thapar Institute, which is regarded as a top engineering college.
His loving, caring and generous nature helped make him a father figure to many in the local Indian community, Dr. Dabra says. When a baby cried, he would work tirelessly until the baby began to laugh. When advice was needed, especially in the Indian community, whether about life or death, he provided it.
Sanjay Dabra recalls that when a friend’s air conditioning broke, and his little girl was crying because of the heat, his father picked up fans and took them to their home. He was in such a hurry to make the house bearable for the child, he drove too fast and got a speeding ticket.
“He would always try to take care of anything,” Dabra said. “If you ever had a problem, Dad had a solution. There was never a challenge that got him all worked up. The things that got him excited were the fun things, never the problematic things.
“I don’t think there was any person who didn’t benefit from knowing my dad,” Dabra says. “He managed to make everyone smile and to teach them something.”
While he was in a position to give counsel, he did not take himself too seriously, Sanjay Dabra says.
When he mispronounced a word or called something by the wrong name, he laughed as hard as everyone else, and could take a running joke.
He also was known to repeat sayings in Punjabi, his native language, to impart wisdom, Dr. Dabra says. “Chinthe nah,” his wife says he would tell her. “There is never anything to worry about; everything is going to be OK.”
Both sons say they will miss their father’s guidance most of all. They were not required to seek his advice, but neither ever made a major decision without it.
In providing counsel, compromise and the ability to get along with others were constant themes.
Balvinder and Savita Dabra visited India together annually, Dr. Dabra says. The younger man continually asked his father to take him to India. Last November, he traveled with his parents.
They visited many places, including the Taj Mahal, and had front row seats at the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan, Dr. Dabra says.
A daily flag-lowering ceremony takes place at the border to the patriotic chants of those in each country.
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.
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