“I choose you as my advisor.”
The words came out of Kamal Yadav with conviction as he re-entered the office of George Garner. Yadav arrived in Columbia the day before when he had stepped off a Greyhound bus on at the corner of Hitt and Broadway at 1 a.m. He had spent a large portion of his day trodding up and down the floors of Schweitzer Hall, looking for a graduate advisor for his master’s degree with agricultural chemistry department at the University of Missouri (now known as MU Biochemistry).
After talking to several professors – none of whom had space in their laboratories to accept a new student with the fall 1961 semester about to start – Yadav had determined that Garner was his guy. End of discussion.
“That’s not the way we do it,” replied Garner, a young assistant professor who was only a few years older than the prospective advisee.
With the work day drawing to an end, Garner tabled the conversation. The next day Yadav showed up again with the same statement: “I choose you as my advisor.”
Eventually, an agreement was made: Yadav would take three graduate-level courses. If he received A’s or B’s during the first semester, Garner would find him a spot in his lab.
“He proved himself from there on,” Garner says.
‘We’ve had a connection over time’
Throughout his life, Yadav has had the work ethic, ambition, intelligence and self-confidence needed to achieve success. He just has had to sell himself to see the fruition of that success. Coming from a poor part of eastern India, that selling process began with his father-in-law, continued with Garner and others at Mizzou and intensified when he started his own chemical manufacturing company in St. Louis, Chemco Industries, in 1975.
“When I go to some place, the inside of me tells me that ‘You are good. You can handle it.’ So things may go wrong, but I will get up,” Yadav says. “I get some kind of energy when things go wrong; I get stronger. So they are telling me no, but I am getting stronger. So I almost forced Dr. Garner to accept me as his graduate student.”
Yadav went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in less than five years’ time between 1962 and 1966 under the tutelage of Garner. The two became close friends after Yadav left MU, with Garner visiting Yadav once a year and his pupil returning the favor two to three times a year.
“Ever since he walked into my office, we’ve had a connection over time,” Garner says.
So it was only fitting for Yadav to establish an endowed scholarship to honor the man who eventually helped supply two large building blocks that would serve as the foundation of his career. The announcement was made at MU Biochemistry’s “40 Years of Biochemistry: Bridging Boundaries for the Greater Good” event on Sept. 2, 2016, at the Bond Life Sciences Center, where the scholarship’s first recipient, Julia Brose, was able to meet with both men – as well as Yadav’s wife, Sudha, and Garner’s family.
“That was incredible because normally you don’t get to meet the people who are supporting you,” recalls Brose, a junior biochemistry major from the St. Louis area who was able to sit and have dinner with Yadav and Garner at the event. “It was really cool because you just heard fun stories that they had about each other. It was touching… Their relationship is really special and you can tell that.”
Brose has been an active member in the laboratory of Chris Pires, professor of biological sciences, since her freshman year after getting involved with the Freshman Research in Plant Sciences (FRIPS) program. She hopes to be able to set up a scholarship for another aspiring biochemistry student when financially able to do so.
“I think it’s really important that if they invest in us so much,” Brose said. “I feel like we have a responsibility to do that for the next generation. You have to do it because who else is going to?”
‘I’ve got to learn that magic’
Yadav’s story starts in Burhia Tikar, a village located off the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Bihar. Yadav was born on Jan. 5, 1937. He was the oldest of five brothers born to a farmer and homemaker.
His life would be flipped upside down in a good way during his first chemistry class in eighth grade. The teacher took a beaker of water and put a drop of some substance in it to turn the water vibrant red. He then adjusted the pH level of the water with another drop, turning it blue. Finally, a third drop of an indicator was applied, resulting in an explosion of purple.
“‘I’ve got to learn that magic,’” Yadav recalls thinking. “I was surprised and amazed by the magic of chemistry and to this day I am amazed by it.”
Before long, while other kids would be playing soccer when taking breaks from working on their family farms, Yadav’s nose would be in a chemistry book as he sat in an oxen cart and read. When he graduated from high school in 1954, he was the first from his village to do so.
Furthermore, he had taken a nationwide standardized test – similar to the SAT or ACT – that had placed him No. 1 in the state, allowing him to receive a scholarship to Bihar University in the main city of Patna. He also received around 30-40 rupees as part of his scholarship (about the equivalent of $4.50 in U.S. dollars today). He went on to finish his degree in five years instead of four to earn an extra honors degree in 1959. Again, he was No. 1 in his class.
“I had built my confidence in myself that I can be good,” Yadav said of his learning abilities. “This was getting me strong from the inside. It was a strong confirmation of what I thought I was.”
After graduating he accepted a position as an agricultural chemistry instructor at Ranchi Agriculture College, due south of Patna, where he taught for two years. When he arrived in Ranchi, he realized that all of his bosses had doctoral degrees.
“At the time I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was because I was too poor,” says Yadav, a man known affectionately for years to many as “Doc.”
His primary boss was an assistant professor who had done his Ph.D. at MU, Dr. Singh (Yadav does not recall his first name). Singh encouraged Yadav to apply to Mizzou, among other schools.
‘He took a chance on me’
When Yadav arrived in America via New York in September of 1961, he had $15 to his name. “That’s all you could get because India didn’t have many dollars at that time,” Yadav says.
The money was from his father-in-law, who came from wealth and also paid for his plane ticket, which cost an astronomical amount of 10,000 rupees or so. He married Sudha in an arranged marriage in 1957 after it was determined that the marriage was going to work and that Yadav had the ability to create a bright future for both of them.
“Because he thought that I would be somebody, he took a chance on me,” Yadav says of his father-in-law.
When he left for the U.S., he left behind his wife and their son, Sam, who was born nine months earlier. They would later join him once he had settled into life in Columbia, where he knew nobody when he first arrived.
On Yadav’s first day in Columbia he met with a foreign student advisor named Edward Thelen. A military veteran who had spent time on the India-Burma border during World War II, everyone referred to him as “Colonel Thelen” (his rank). Upon meeting him, Thelen set Yadav up with a job washing dishes at the MU Student Center for 50 cents an hour and found him a room to stay in for $25 a month. Yadav started his dishwashing job that same day.
“It would be so hot, you would not need a shower because you had already been steamed,” Yadav jokes.
With Garner’s challenge in hand, Yadav began an exhaustive routine that involved taking classes during the morning, washing dishes at the student center from 2 to 6 p.m., taking an hour nap and then studying and taking notes from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. – in case there might be a pop quiz the next day. In addition, he would find time to take an English course for non-native speakers at Hickman High School, at the suggestion of Garner.
After getting two A’s and a B in the fall of 1961, Garner agreed to be Yadav’s advisor. Garner also found a place for him in his laboratory. Yadav would prep the undergraduate lab for experiments, among other duties, for $220 a month.
“I was one of the richest guys, I thought,” says Yadav who would send a large portion of his income back to his family.
‘If it is to be, it is up to me’
Upon finishing his Ph.D. in 1966, Yadav accepted a job as a research chemist at Monsanto in St. Louis. Eight years later someone asked if he wanted to be the director of research and quality control at Falstaff Brewing. What he did not know was that the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. When the company folded shortly thereafter, he was told there was not enough money for severance pay, but he could take his desk and lab bench with him.
“I still have them, too,” Yadav says.
He quickly found himself overqualified for many of the openings that were in the St. Louis area. A year later, in 1975, he had decided to start his own business, Chemco Industries, devoted to producing chemicals needed for large-scale sanitization and cleaning. He got the company off the ground with his remaining $5,000 in savings that was used mainly to buy the raw materials needed for the chemical products. He started off with two other employees, one of whom was his wife, who took care of office work.
The other part of the savings went into attending a Dale Carnegie leadership training course, which helped boost his confidence in this new world he inhabited. He was later asked to be an assistant to the instructor. The job paid nothing, but Yadav looked at it as an internship.
Still, after his training, he had a hard time getting an appointment with – or even the attention of – the city’s large companies.
“I have a belief system that everybody can help you. Of course, Dr. Garner has been a symbol of help and mentoring. But all these things will help you only 10 percent. 90 percent is you. So 10 percent is what happens to you and 90 percent is what you do about them,” says Yadav, who has a favorite saying to live by: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
“So a lot of things go wrong in life, but I don’t go wrong. I won’t let that touch me. That attitude helps me overcome when things don’t go right.”
A few months after starting Chemco, he realized that his ideal customer had to have three characteristics: they would see him without an appointment, they would buy immediately when he presented his product and their checks would not bounce.
He would later discover that those ideal customers were plentiful within municipal services such as fire departments, police departments, sewer plants, schools and utility companies. For the entire first year, he managed all sales by himself, before he wrote out a manual and later hired and trained sales people.
“I learned the psychology of capitalism where you provide a good product, good service, good prices and people will buy it,” Yadav says. “They don’t care where you came from or how you look. If you perform for them, they will continue to do business.”
‘You start as nobody and you become somebody’
Today, Chemco is in its second location and has 27 employees. In 42 years, nine of his workers have earned multi-millionaire status.
“To be successful, I have to help other people to be successful,” Yadav says. “I say in this country, you come with nothing and you’ve got everything. You start as nobody and you become somebody. Only America can give you this opportunity. No other country that I know can give this opportunity of freedom to use your talent and hard work. So I say the harder you work, the luckier you get and it worked out for us.”
The Yadavs have lived in three houses in the St. Louis area. At each house, the first house guest has been Garner and his wife.
“Dr. Garner has been a source of inspiration,” Kamal says of his mentor. “When I think about a Christian, he comes to my mind. One time he told me that the symbol of Christianity is the cross and the cross means that you cross the ‘I’. Don’t think about yourself. That’s Christianity to me. You think about others. He really practices that.”
In addition to looking over his company, Kamal and Sudha spend a fair amount of their time driving to the Indianapolis area where both of their adult children – and two of their four grandchildren — live. Sam worked at Chemco for several years before starting his own company, Quest Safety Products. Their daughter, Sheela, is the former dean of the University of Indianapolis School of Business. One of his granddaughters is in her second year of medical school; the other is starting to work on her MBA.
“Every generation instead of going down, is going up, but without education, I would have not gotten out of poverty,” says Yadav, who credits a large part of his success to the “mental gymnastics” he went through in his 10 years of college work and research.
“Like when you go to a health club, you build your arm, build your legs and body. That does not mean you’ll be a wrestler or truck driver or furniture mover, but you have the strength to do it,” he says.
“It’s the same thing when you go through the schooling like I did, 10 years of college. It’s a lot of mental gymnastics. So I can solve life problems a lot faster than people who did not have that opportunity. All of the problems that are given in textbooks, they are really old and outdated by the time the book is printed, but the exercises we use… they never go away.”
Kamal Yadav is featured at the 1:10 mark in this coverage video of MU Biochemistry’s 40th anniversary event that took place on Sept. 2, 2016.