Honoring 54 years of dedication
Story by Erin Chesnut
Dr. Shakti Kumar Airee, known to his friends and colleagues as “S.K.,” officially retired from university service on May 31, 2019, after 54 years in the classroom. He passed away three weeks later. Airee is UT Martin’s longest-serving faculty member to date and will be remembered for his unfailing pride in his students and his conviction that they could accomplish anything with the right motivation.
“Dr. S.K. Airee was a tremendous asset to the Department of Chemistry and Physics, and that department and the chemistry degree program would not be what they are today without his influence and guidance over the past five and a half decades. He leaves behind the kind of legacy an educator dreams about, with hundreds of former students impacting the field of chemistry around the world,” said Chancellor Keith Carver upon Airee’s passing.
This article includes statements Airee made about his life and career in a radio episode of “30 Minutes” with Steve James, aired on WCMT radio in May 2019, as well as comments from many of his colleagues, friends and family members.
Dedicated to UT Martin
“I am originally from India. I came to this country in 1958, and I went to Oklahoma State (University), where I got my Ph.D. I was looking for a job, and there was a job in Martin, Tennessee. … Here was just the Martin Branch.” – Airee
“I came in 1971, and 32 years later I retired, and he was still there, and then went on 20 years,” said Dr. Charles Harding, professor emeritus of chemistry and a longtime neighbor of the Airee family. “So, I really, really got to know him well and admire him and respect him for his work and his family and his duties as a husband and a father in the community. …
“I was department chairperson for 15 years, and I worked with him. And during the time that we were trying to go get (accreditation), … everybody in the chemistry department worked hard to do that, but nobody worked any harder than he did,” said Harding. “He did it with a glad heart. He really was a hard worker.”
“The key thing I saw is that he was here from early in the morning until long after everybody else was gone, putting (in) many long hours,” said Dr. Phillip Davis, professor of chemistry. “He would put in the time he needed for his classes, but then he has his extra activities like the student affiliates group and the Key Club and the Kiwanis Club. He always did those in addition and on top of everything else.”
“I think his dedication to UTM, to the department and to his students, that all-out giving of himself to those three things (are his legacy). He was so supportive of everybody, regardless of what they were doing. I wish I had an adjective to describe that,” said Dr. Nancy Hinds (‘69), a former chemistry instructor and one of Airee’s first UT Martin students.
Dedicated to his Students
“That was his mission in life, always, was teaching and enabling students,” said Hinds. “The expectation he had for his students made them think, ‘You know, I can learn this. I can do this. I can contribute.’ And they did.”
Steve James: “What will you miss most about teaching?”
Airee: “Students. Students doing things, you see. You see that their eyes are proud after doing a project. … They could never pay me enough for that. … Sponsoring them, it’s just like a coach – a football coach. He cannot play the game; players play the game and win the championship. The coach is proud. That’s what my job is, like a coach.”
Hinds says Airee not only involved his own students but also found room for non-chemistry majors to participate and learn leadership and professional skills that could be applied to their own areas of study. His pride and joy on campus was the Student Members of the American Chemical Society organization, formerly known as the Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society, which he chartered in 1971. One could scarcely speak with Airee on any occasion without hearing the latest news on the UT Martin SMACS chapter – and with good reason. The UT Martin chapter is the most decorated chapter in ACS history with more than 30 Outstanding Chapter ratings.The chapter is also the only chapter to have received the ACS Green Chapter Award for green chemistry initiatives every year since that award’s inception.
“I founded the charter of the (UT Martin) student members chapter of the American Chemical Society, and that chapter is number one in the nation. … And our chapter is the only one that has won all these green chapter ratings. … There are 900 chapters nationwide, but we are on top of everybody – this chapter here in Martin.” -Airee
“In all the years, I never once heard S.K. say, ‘I won this.’ Instead, he would always say, ‘My students…’ – a testament to what motivated him to come to campus every day,” said Dr. Charley Deal (‘92,’96), executive director of research, outreach and economic development, in his comments at Airee’s funeral.
“It’s hard to say one impact, although I think it’s certainly true that of all the activities he had, his interaction with the Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society was the thing that he loved most, and he would do anything to advance the student affiliates,” said Davis.
Airee’s colleagues all agree he had an uncanny way to convincing you to do what he wanted, especially when it concerned the SMACS chapter.
“The thing that I found out about Dr. Airee is that he was a master at kind of conning you into helping him with things. So, he’d get you doing a little bit and then a little bit more and a little bit more and soon you would discover you were hook, line and sinker into what he had planned,” said Davis.
“He was a master at – let’s put it this way – getting people to do things that they really didn’t want to do,” said Harding, laughing.
“He’d try to pull the same trick with the students that he did with the faculty. He would convince them, ‘Why don’t you come, and we’ll do this the first week of school?’ and then ‘Why don’t you come and join the student affiliates?’ and ‘Why don’t you become an officer?’” added Davis, who says he often found himself participating in events he had originally declined.
“He wanted to see them (the students) develop their leadership skills and their planning. … Now, to tell you the truth, the ideas that they came up with were usually his ideas, but he did it in such a way as they thought it was their idea,” said Harding.
“See, what I did all these years is get students to do things. Students would organize the science bowl. They would serve as emcees. They would do all the little things that have to be done. … I just stayed back and enjoyed looking at them doing things.” – Airee
“He grew good students, and he grew good people,” said Hinds. “He engaged them in learning, but he also taught them many professional skills.”
Airee took students to the American Chemical Society’s national meeting each year and encouraged them to organize the Area Collegiate Chemistry Meeting on campus in alternate years. The SMACS chapter also arranged an annual high school science bowl for area schools, hosted chemistry merit badge clinics for local scouting organizations and invited high-profile speakers to the main campus to discuss issues in chemical education and industry.
“(The area chemistry meeting) encouraged research on our campus, but it also gave students an opportunity to learn how to present papers, to learn how to dress, to learn how to emcee the different sessions and just take responsibility because we were running a meeting,” said Hinds. “Many of these students, at least for the science bowl, were not chemistry majors or were not going to go on in chemistry, but those are skills that they can take wherever. That was one of the greatest things he gave them.”
“He worked with so many of them in that student affiliates chapter. I think in respect to leadership abilities and attitudes, that was as helpful to them as their coursework – and maybe more. Many, many UT Martin graduates from the chemistry program have gone on to do really well,” said Harding.
Hinds remembers many occasions when Airee’s faith in his students and their programs outweighed even her own. She was responsible for helping run the student chemistry demonstrations, or “chemistry magic shows,” as they were called (a role she never specifically agreed to fill).
“We would be trying to get some demonstration to go, and we would always do it in that (physical chemistry) lab next to his office where he had a door leading into the lab. And he would be in there writing (the news article) about what a wonderful chemistry demonstration show that we had done, and we had not even done it yet! He was just effusive in his praise, … and we didn’t know that it was going to work! … I often thought it was premature, but he had a lot of faith,” she said.
“As one of the SMACS presidents, I spent a lot of time with Dr. Airee,” said Layla Gargus (‘15). “He was a very passionate and patient mentor. He was my physical chemistry professor, but he taught me a lot more than that. He taught me how to conduct myself in a professional manner and still have fun. In SMACS, he always let us take the ropes, and he would just sit back and be proud of all of us.”
“S.K. is going to be remembered most for his work with the student affiliates chapter. … If you could get (all his students) here together and talk to them, they would talk to you about the things that they did in the student affiliates – the projects they had, the awards that they won, the meetings that they attended,” said Harding. “He put UT Martin on the map in the chemistry department with that student affiliate chapter. His name was known all over the country for that reason. Some of those people (his students) were there at his funeral service. Some of them I hadn’t seen in 30 years or more, but they were here for that service, and they were there because of the student affiliates. … That’s what they would remember about S.K. Airee. Really, that’s what I remember about him. I know he taught physical chemistry and general chemistry and courses and labs just like all the rest of us did, but he’s known for that work with the student affiliate chapter.”
Dedicated to his Family
Airee grew up in a prominent Indian family of peaceful freedom fighters under the direction of Ghandi in the 1940s, and he adopted a selfless approach to service early in life. His daughter Anita says that as the first of his family to go abroad, her father “transferred his sense of duty to the small town of Martin, Tennessee, and the newly budding … university of UT Martin.”
Airee and his wife, Shashi, have four children – Hans, Rita, Anita and Richa. While Rita passed away at a young age, Hans (‘87), Anita (‘89) and Richa (‘00) are all UT Martin graduates and hold pharmacy degrees from the UT Health Science Center in Memphis. Airee spoke frequently of his pride in all four of his children.
“They’re all in pharmacy, but different ways. I am very proud of them.” – Airee
“Usually those who are successful in one area such as (their) career are noted to be neglecting something else, such as home life. I can honestly say this was not the case with dad,” said Richa. “My dad was full on 100 percent at work and at home; he never missed a beat. I do not ever feel like I came in second behind his work (or) career, which to me now as an adult is absolutely impressive. …
“The love he had for his students is something I felt at home. … When we worked on my science projects, he was always making sure I absolutely understood what I was doing and why,” she continued. “There were times he would look at me and say, ‘Richa, are you learning something?’ He would put so much time into me to make sure I was understanding whatever subject we were working on.”
All of his children mention how their father put his students and his love of chemistry ahead of his own promotion or achievements. Anita, who has also continued in academia, takes this to heart in her own classroom.
“In a world where people are almost neurotic about promotion, … I have maintained, as did Dad, the focus of clear and systematic teaching … that helps a student learn what they need to learn and get where they need to go,” she said. “Dad and I both chose not to fall in love with the means to the end – just the end. Dad always focused on keeping the important thing the important thing.”
Richa says she never witnessed or heard of her father losing his temper or behaving dishonestly, both of which are lessons his children have taken with them into adulthood.
“As far as his legacy, I am hoping that it is to those who teach, that they see what genuine passion to teach is about – the selflessness and dedication it takes to be that mentor/inspiration/encourager to the student and not to be in it for their own promotion; to the students, I hope his legacy is that finding your passion and working in that field is priceless. Dad always said he felt like he never worked a day in his life,” said Richa.
“Staying true to your values, integrity and honor came through, but also being a subservient leader in every aspect of life – always paying it forward and helping people see all that they can accomplish,” added Hans. “For me, joining me in my journey to become an Eagle Scout, he supported not only me but others in the troop. I remember him hiking a 14-mile trail at Shiloh, camping out at jamborees and helping me with my pinewood derby car. My first job ever, delivering papers, he would wake up with me to simply drive the car at 5 a.m.”
“When the university is filled with people who work for the student’s success and not their own, when faculty participate in university activities and advance their profession and the reputation of the university over their own promotion, I will know his legacy in the university has been fulfilled,” said Anita. “When the community reaches out to help the community by buying local and being active in civic and community groups, … I will know his legacy in Martin has been fulfilled. When immigrants from other countries come to serve the United States down to the smallest community and not simply to advance themselves to the top, I will know his legacy amongst immigrants has been fulfilled.”
Dedicated to his Community
“By the way, another thing that I’ve done is that I’m a charter member of the Kiwanis Club. … I was really active in it, even the very first year I got the Kiwanian of the Year Award in 1968.” – Airee
No article about Airee would be complete without mention of his work with the Kiwanis Club of Martin.
“He was a charter member of the Kiwanis Club, and he was not just meet, eat, greet and gone. He worked,” said Harding.
“S.K. was very proud of being a charter member, and he was always eager for others to know that he was a Kiwanian,” said Dr. Otha Britton, professor emeritus of computer science and former governor of the Louisiana-Mississippi-West Tennessee District of Kiwanis International. “He always beamed with pride when his chemistry student club would win another award, and he never failed to announce this at a Kiwanis meeting. Once or twice every year, he would bring his students to the Kiwanis meeting to provide a demonstration of some fun chemistry experiments. He also loved his community and making it a better place to live, and that is undoubtedly one of the main reasons that he loved Kiwanis.”
“Dad sold Kiwanis pancake tickets, and I cannot remember a single year when he did not work all Kiwanis events from the pancake breakfast to the Christmas parade. He, in his 80s, was still out in the cold helping Christmas floats line up for the parade,” said Anita.
S.K. and Shashi Airee established a Kiwanis scholarship for UT Martin students with proven academic and community service records. This fund, along with several others established by the Airee family, have been endowed to assist future students with their academic pursuits.
“By engaging in community service and being a charter member of Kiwanis, S.K. taught us how important it is to understand cultures and to be open-minded and accepting. The university is a melting pot of different religions, cultures, thoughts and ideas, and S.K. knew the importance of making sure everyone felt accepted at UTM and in our community,” said Dr. Charley Deal during Airee’s funeral..
“Dad truly gave his life, his heart and soul for students, UT Martin and the town of Martin,” said Anita. “He had a deep love and concern for the success and development of all. I pray every day that many come after him that will walk after his example.”
Leaving a legacy
“We know the impact S.K. had on our students, colleagues and our community, but what is his legacy? I think this is easy to answer – his legacy is each of us, that we continue to live our lives in a way that respects the ideas and diversity of others; that we pour our hearts into making others feel accepted; that we are passionate about our students,” said Deal.
“What I will remember most about S.K. is how much he loved his family, his university, his chemistry student club, his teaching and his Kiwanis family,” said Britton. “S.K. was a friend we knew we could count on when we needed him.”
Dr. Charles Harding may have said it best, however, when he quoted Shakespeare’s “Henry V” during Airee’s funeral service:
“‘A good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither and a full eye will wax hollow, but a good heart is the sun and the moon, for it always shines bright, and it never changes, but it keeps its course true.’ And that’s what I said about S.K. He had a good heart. … I said at that service that S.K.’s heart did not stop shining brightly the day he died. It’s dulled a bit today by grief and tears, but the sun will come out tomorrow. …
“His heart shines brightly in this community and among all those students that he touched during those years, and Hans and Anita and Richa and Mrs. Airee, and it’ll never change. He was that kind. He was a significant personality, S.K. Airee was.”