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January 10, 2000


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Chhotabhai Patel's Son Lived His Father's Dream

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J M Shenoy

Ronald Chhotabhai Patel Ronald Chhotabhai Patel, whose father once dreamt of a journalistic career in America but gave up the idea because he was convinced in the 1920s there was no justice for Indians in America, died in Philadelphia, having made a name as one of the best editors in the country. Patel, 52, had liver cancer.

In an illustrious career, he served as president of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors and of the Newspaper Features Council.

He worked at the Sunday Inquirer for most of the last three decades. Inquirer editors credit him with helping to revitalize the Sunday paper during its circulation wars with the Philadelphia Bulletin in the 1970s and early 1980s. Patel's trademark was the Sunday strip, a lively news-feature that was stripped across the top of the front page, often focusing on a person or family as a way of illustrating a trend, the Inquirer obituary stated.

Quickly the Sunday paper gained steam, and by the time The Bulletin folded in 1982, the Inquirer had an edge of 400,000 in Sunday circulation.

"Ron was one of the senior-most Asian American editors in the country, but he was amazingly accessible to young journalists," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, journalism professor at Columbia University and co-founder, South Asian Journalists Association.

"I would regularly send students and SAJA members his way with questions and ideas, and he would always lend them -- and me -- a ear."

Ron C Patel is one of the few Indian Americans to reach the top; others include Peter Bhatia at The Oregonian and Krishna Gaur at the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Ron Patel was an Indian American journalist before there was such a thing as an Indian American journalist," said Bhatia. "He and I mused on occasion about our shared heritage and how we came to find ourselves in journalism. I believe he also shared the same delight I find as more and more young Americans of Indian descent have found their way into our chosen lifestyle."

"I hope Ron Patel will be remembered most not necessarily for being a pioneer, but for being a fabulous journalist and the legendary Sunday editor of the Inquirer. He is a journalist whose mark and impact is so visible, so tangible and that will live on even though now he is gone. Ron and I hadn't talked much the past few years. I didn't even know of his illness. But our connection, albeit distant, was a unique one, and one that I will always be grateful that I had."

His father ran an electrical appliance store. His mother, Joan, was an American of Polish descent. Chhotabhai Ukabhai Patel, died when Ronald Patel was three.

Ron Patel, who lived in Detroit's Far East Side, then overwhelmingly white, worked at a butcher shop as a meat-cutter during his teens.

"I fought people who called me 'nigger' from my first day of kindergarten until my freshman year in college," Patel wrote in a 1993 article in The Inquirer's Sunday magazine, in which he recounted his rediscovery of his Indian heritage.

"I became flinty, tough, streetwise, and I was proud of it."

In 1991, Patel, urged by religious leader Pramukh Swami Maharaj, whom he had met at a cultural festival -- made a pilgrimage to his ancestral village of Medhad, where he learned that his father was a scion of a well-known land-owning family.

In an article that was first published in the Inquirer and then in several other newspapers, including The Houston Chronicle, Patel described the reception he received when he reached the village.

First he wrote about how his visit came about and his reservations about going to India.

"Come to India for my next festival,'' Swami Maharaj said. "Come, and I will take care of you. I will help find your family for you.''

"For all my life, I had had no interest in going to India, none at all. If I were to travel that far, I'd told my wife and two kids, I would rather see the Pyramids in Egypt than risk the rejection of the land of my father. He might have been a high-caste Indian, but he had married an American woman. That could make me a half-caste, a man without a place in Indian society. What kind of welcome would I receive under those customs?

"Also, a division had arisen between my mother and the Indian relatives in 1950 over whether my father's body would be cremated and his ashes shipped back to India. My mother yielded, but there had been no contact for the decades after. If I had any family left, would they really care to see me?

"What I knew about my father's time in America seemed a good indication that his family in India must have been of some quality. Growing up, I was told that he had come to America from Baroda to go to college, traveling on his family's money. He had traveled the United States for quite a while before settling in Detroit, where he opened an appliance store and did electrical contracting. In a partnership with a contractor, he had built the house in which we lived, along with a number of other homes in the neighborhood. And we were the first family on the block to have a television, since he sold them. To my mother and her family, he was Pat a quiet, thoughtful person who neither smoked nor drank."

The moment Ron C Patel arrived in his ancestral village, he was born again.

"It was the rose petals that broke through my American resolve," he wrote. "As I enter the pavilion, they begin raining rose petals on me... I am filled with the feeling that these are my people, my beginnings, and I am moved to tears.

"I give a little speech. I say, truthfully, that all I had planned to say had been swept from my mind by the wonder of their welcome. I say I understand now how my father had summoned the courage to leave India, to be the first Indian to live in the United States as far as anyone has traced. He had courage, I say, because he knew that no matter what he did or what was said of him, he had the love of his village to make him feel whole. I thank them for having such love for my father and say that I consider the songs, dances and flowers to be praise for him, not for me at all."

Ron Patel accepted life's rewards often with humility, but he was also notorious for his fiery temper.

An obit in the Inquirer said:

"Poring over his computer screen, rejecting headlines that weren't sharp enough, murmuring non-stop to himself and his staff, he piloted the Sunday paper from the early 'bulldog' edition, distributed Saturday mornings, to the Sports Final, which hit the street 18 hours later, frequently remaking pages along the way."

Maxwell E P King, former editor of The Inquirer and now executive director of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, likened Patel to the conductor of a symphony orchestra.

"He would go around all week checking all the departments, tuning all his instruments for the big concert," King said. "He thought very proactively about the paper. Instead of waiting for stories and pictures to come in, he was thinking about the news, convincing people to do stories."

In recent years, he had mellowed, his colleagues said.

Even then he wrote an angry letter to a New York University professor three years ago when she sent him a query without telling him where she had been published or enclosing the writing samples. He would later tell a journalist that journalism professors in particular should practice what they preach: Unless you are familiar with an editor, include your credentials and samples.

A viewing for Ron Patel will be held from 1500 to 1700 on Tuesday at the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul, at 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. A Mass and eulogy will follow. The family will receive friends after the service at the Pen & Pencil Club, 1522, Latimer St, in Center City.

For tributes and a compelling essay by Patel about his first visit to India, please check

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