Innerviews: Longtime India transplant moving on
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After 42 years in Charleston, he needed a change. He moved early this month to Charlottesville, Va. That's as far as he cared to get from the adopted town he loves.
A 66-year-old native of India, Sam Uppala grew up dreaming of a life in America, a dream shared by all of his college classmates. He was a bright student and studied diligently to realize his goal.
In 1968, he arrived in the U.S. to get his master's degree in chemical engineering at Montana State University. Carbide lured him to Charleston, but he switched quickly to DuPont and stayed 32 years in a role that required lots of world travel.
Active in all sorts of community events and organizations, a respected juried painter and a certified wine professional, he evolved into the quintessential bon vivant and man-about-town.
With characteristic enthusiasm and optimism, he looks forward to making a new name for himself in Charlottesville.
"I was born in India, south India in the state of Andhra Pradesh. These days, probably 100 million people live there, so it's pretty dense like most of India.
"I was born into a middle-class family. My father was a farmer and a high school graduate. Faming isn't like it is here. Farms are separate from the houses. The house was in the village and farmland was outside the village, so we didn't live on the farm.
"I had a brother and two sisters, all older than me. When I was growing up, they were already gone. I wanted to have an education and be something. I had a free hand. I was never any trouble. I'm self-motivated. They didn't have to worry about me.
"I was top of my class all the time, for every subject. I graduated high school at 14. I skipped three grades one year. The school system isn't the same as here. We don't have semesters. You take an exam at the end of the year to determine if you fail or pass and advance to the next grade. We went to school from June to April.
"My dad had a pretty good education for his time and place. He could write and read English, which many others could not do. You learned English in high school. My mother was basically a housekeeper but also reasonably educated.
"I came here in 1968 after I had my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. In India at that time, maybe even today, your aspiration is to go into the medical profession or engineering. I could have gone either way, but by chance I got into engineering school.
"I came first to Montana, to Montana State University. That's everybody's dream. All my classmates wanted the opportunity to come here. I had admission to several universities here.
"I was already attuned to the western culture. Growing up in India, we are exposed to the pop culture. I used to read Life and Time when I was growing up, and I watched Hollywood movies. So nothing was too shocking.
"The weather, the environment, was much different. Going to Montana, there aren't that many people around you, so that was a big change. And the infrastructure there was fantastic compared to where I came from.
"I can't say enough about how well people received me here and in Montana.
"I was in Montana two years and got my master's degree there. I came to West Virginia for a job. I was recruited on campus in Montana by Union Carbide. I worked with Carbide a short time then moved to DuPont. It turned out to be a very good move.
"I became a United States citizen as soon as I could. That was in 1976, the Bicentennial year. It was a very special thing. If anybody asks me to name the most important event or day in my life, I would say the day I became a United States citizen.
"I started as a process engineer then went to sourcing, buying chemicals. I spent most of my career in that role, so I have traveled a lot in Europe with my job, which was very enjoyable and challenging. Business changed all the time, so it was a very exciting job. I worked with DuPont for 32 years. I retired in 2004.
"There were some fluctuations in the industry when I came. It's still a growing business. DuPont went through cycles certainly. When I was there, we increased employment maybe 50 percent, then it started going down. Now it has stabilized at a different level, but certainly it is not where it was. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of plants being sold and product not being made here anymore.
"After I retired, I had no idea I was going to work on anything other than doing a lot of volunteer work. In the '80s, I got interested in wine and food as I traveled in Europe. I started with a group of people making wine, so my interest evolved.
"When I retired, I decided out of the blue to take a workshop at the Culinary Institute of America. I just went for fun, but I liked it so much, I ended up taking 10 classes in two or three years. Then I took an exam to be certified as a wine professional, never dreaming I was going to do anything with it.
"But that led to doing a wine education class at the Clay Center when they started the adult education program. That notoriety led to a local retailer, the Liquor Co., inviting me to help them with their wine program. I worked there about four years. We had a great time putting things in place, buying wine, having wine tastings, building up a customer base.
"I pretty much have a glass of wine with every meal. I'm kind of a generalist. I like all kinds of wine. One thing I enjoyed was finding inexpensive but very good wines.
"The painting probably goes back 30 years or so. In high school, I used to do pen and ink work, but in India, your focus is going to be in one area, on getting an education that will get you to America. That means you have to be very diligent about what you are focused on. That's true even today. It's very competitive.
"My mentor in painting was June Kilgore. I took a workshop with her, and she encouraged me. She thought one painting I did in that class was very good and said I should continue to do more.
"I submitted that painting to a juried exhibition, and it was picked up, and I've had a few others juried in since then, so it gave me some validation.
"Mostly I'm an abstract painter in oils and acrylics. I still paint from time to time, but I hope to do more of it after this transition.
"Tomorrow, I am moving from Charleston where I have lived for 42 years. My roots are here, by and large. But I wanted a change. I can't explain easily. It's not like a slight, because I have wonderful friends here, deep friendships. I'm going 200 miles to Charlottesville. I wanted to be in the eastern U.S., close to Charleston, and I have some friends there.
"I enjoyed every bit of my life here. Charleston has terrific things. For one, the West Virginia Symphony. I've been a volunteer with them for years and will continue to support them. It's a treasure to have that kind of organization here.
"I've been involved in the Clay Center, FOOTMAD for over 20 years and most recently, the blues and jazz festivals that are part of FestivALL.
"I'm sure I will get involved in the local events in Charlottesville. I'm an assimilationist. I want to be involved in society and be like the society, like they say, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.' I want to be part of it.
"That part of Virginia is a wine country, a very growing wine country. Maybe I'll be involved in a winery or retail operation, but I don't have a specific plan.
"I'm an optimist. I look forward to whatever adventure lies ahead." Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.