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An Iranian-American 'Pioneer' Celebrates 50 years in America

On Feb. 7, Beatles lovers will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band's arrival in America. While I like the Beatles, my siblings and I will be celebrating a different 50th anniversary: The arrival of our father in the United States.
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On Feb. 7, Beatles lovers will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band's arrival in America. While I like the Beatles, my siblings and I will be celebrating a different 50th anniversary: The arrival of our father in the United States.

Mohammad Shams was born and raised in Tehran. After several unsuccessful attempts to pass the university entrance exams -- failing only because he couldn't pass the English section -- his uncle made him an offer he couldn't refuse. He would pay my father's airfare to the US, if my father would accompany a cousin who needed heart surgery.

"The plan was, I'd come to the U.S. and learn English well enough to pass the university entrance exams in Iran. I guess, I've never learned English," my father jokes.

He was supposed to live with relatives in suburban D.C. But in what would ultimately be a running theme in his life, he decided to get outside his comfort zone. My father found a room in the Adams Morgan, Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights area -- the same area in which I live today -- but in those days, not so well-regarded.

I'm not sure how long it took, but he eventually found a job at a drive-in restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, just north of the zoo. "The owner was this large, loud typical white guy. He was real hard ass. But for some reason, he liked me," my father recalls.

After running into a mountain climbing buddy from Iran who told him about two schools in Kentucky that didn't require a TOEFL (or the 1960s equivalent of this exam, which tests English proficiency) score to apply, my father applied for both. "Whichever school responded first, would be where I would go," my father says matter of factly.

Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky ended up responding first.

My father -- and one other Iranian who lasted three days -- arrived in Murray one hot late summer afternoon. If anyone has been to Murray, KY in late August, early September, you know what it's like. In 1964, air conditioning wasn't as widespread as it is now. "It was so hot during the day, we went to the movies just for the air conditioning," he says.

My father had no intention of sticking around for longer than a year. The plan was to continue moving West all the way to Alaska with its endless supply of mountains.

But something happened during his first year in Murray, Rand McNally's 2012 Friendliest Small Town in America. He fell in love with the routine, the people, the education, and the opportunity to pursue a dream nobler than conquering a few mountains thousands of miles away.

He loved teaching, especially math and physics. While at Murray, he tutored countless students in his library "office" -- by office I mean a table he had claimed by charming the librarians. Students would come during his "office hours" to get help with their math classes. When he had to have an emergency appendectomy, some of those students received their tutoring at my father's hospital bedside.

Every summer, he returned to Washington, D.C. He'd work at that same restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. "I'd be there 12, 16, sometimes 18 hours a day. Most of the time, 7 days a week. For me it was 3 months of hard labor for 9 months of vacation," my father explains, satisfied with his calculus.

Every fall he'd return to Murray, ready to start the new semester. After four years, he graduated. For him, that accomplishment is a badge of honor. My siblings and I each took longer to finish. "I don't have to remind you that I finished in four years," he often says, usually in large crowds within ear shot of one of us.

After finishing at Murray, he began teaching at St. Mary's High School in Paducah, KY. Many decades later, I ended up coaching the daughter of one of his first students. "I was terrible at math," his former student told me one day after soccer practice, "but whatever your father said or did, it helped me understand."

In Paducah, he met the woman who would become his first wife and the mother of his three children. A few years later, in 1973, he experienced four major milestones: he went to Iran for the first and only time since coming to the U.S.; he moved to Bardstown, KY; his first child -- my sister -- was born; and he was offered, but ultimately turned down, a fellowship at MIT to study nuclear physics.

I'm not sure who embraced who first, but Bardstown and my father seemed to fit perfectly. Bardstown, recently voted Rand McNally's 2012 Most Beautiful Small Town in America, taught my father (and still does for the most part) just as much as my father taught it.

By 1979, a pivotal year for all Iranian-Americans, he had become fully integrated into the community. So much so that during the hostage crisis, there was no ill-will directed towards him. He even received calls of support. Some went so far as to offer their protection in the event he was being harassed. The same message was sent decades later in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

In the intervening years, my father became a highly respected member of the community. He started the youth soccer program, more because he thought kids should have a physical outlet and less because he had a passion for soccer. During the summers, he coached tennis and taught countless 4-H campers how to swim. My dad's coaching style was a mixture of encouragement and trial by fire. His lessons were always designed to push your limits. There was no "can't," only maximum effort to try. His easy practices were as hard as most coaches' hard practices.

He employed the same tactic when, at 19, I asked him to teach me Farsi. My father handed me a book of Hafez and said, "We're going to read this together and that's how you're going to learn Farsi." You see, he had been wary of teaching us. Even with the community embracing him, he still worried that publicly speaking Farsi would cause a problem.

This was one of the few times his teaching skills failed. Handing me a book of Hafez and using that to teach me Farsi would have been like someone handing my father a book of Shakespeare to teach him English. We got through one poem. The one line I remember is loosely translated as "Love at first appears easy, but difficulties arise." That has stuck with me ever since, though.

My father didn't just give back to the community by teaching or coaching. After he retired from the classroom, he decided to become a volunteer firefighter. I remember thinking, "what on earth would compel him to do that?" But someone said, "Why not? He's done everything else. This shouldn't be all that surprising."

We were all worried -- my siblings and I, my mom even (they had divorced some twenty years earlier). But we knew that supporting him would be more productive than not. Regardless, I was proud of him. The training is rigorous, even more so for someone in their 60s.

The constant learner, my father also started a master's program in Christian spirituality. He wanted to learn more about Islam, but there wasn't a program in Kentucky. The path that led to his decision started years before when he visited a monastery near our home town. One of the monks -- who eventually became the head abbot -- took my father under his wing. Through discussions, weekend retreats, and day visits, my father became more interested in religious spirituality.

This shouldn't have been surprising. My father has always been more Sufi than orthodox Muslim. Before finishing his masters, the fire department named him as their chaplain. Their choice spoke volumes about their respect for my father and their tolerance for other religious perspectives.

My father also became a hospice volunteer and volunteer chaplain at the local hospital. He had many interesting exchanges with patients. One he relayed to me last year, "I knocked on the door of this little old lady. I introduced myself and asked her if she wanted me to pray with her. She asked my name again. I told her Mohammad. She paused. Then asked me if I was Muslim. I wasn't going to lie, so I said yes. Her response almost brought me to my knees. She said, 'Well, I guess God put me here so I could meet a Muslim and learn we're not all that different.'"

At 73, for the first time in his life, he's starting to slow down. He's minimized his commitments as a firefighter and chaplain. But, recently he started volunteering at the same high school where he used to teach -- some students need his help with math.

So on Feb. 7, while Beatles fans will be celebrating the 50-year anniversary of their idols' arrival in America, I'll be celebrating a man who exemplifies the American Dream.

He's not a lawyer. He's not a doctor. He's not an engineer. Rather, he's a pioneer venturing outside the comfort zones popular with other Iranian immigrants.

"Your father is Bardstown," a friend told me a few years ago." Your father is one of the pillars of this community. He's an icon."

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