Susan Nagarkatti is a librarian. Not a typical librarian, mind you, but a reference librarian. She also is a product of the ‘American Dream.’ You may wonder how it is that a reference librarian—with all the stereotypical images that job conjures up—could possibly be an exemplary product of the American Dream. Surely, all reference librarians wear spectacles on the ends of their noses, keep to themselves and constantly clutch books while saying Shush! to talkative library patrons all day long, right? In reality, no two librarians are exactly the same, just like no two American dreams or stories are alike.
Susan Nagarkatti’s American story spans from Germany and Russia to India and Texas and finally to St. Louis. She has uncovered much of her family’s story; and now, she’s on a mission to help others find theirs.
Her own story starts with Catherine the Great, the Empress who ruled Russia through much of the 18th century. Catherine needed skilled farmers to work the land so she encouraged the immigration of German farmers— among them were Susan’s ancestors. Susan tells me it was in the early 1910s that her grandfather and grandmother set out for America. “Things were getting pretty tough there with the crackdown by the Czar, and the handwriting was on the wall,” she says. “They had some relatives who had already come to the U.S. so I suppose that in spite of the perilous journey, they felt pretty safe coming over.”
They ended up as farmers in Texas, raised a family during the Depression and had a daughter who would grow up to be Susan’s mother. Susan also was raised in Texas and she went to college there, earning her master’s degree in library science. It’s also where she met her future husband, Jai.
Jai was a man with a totally different American story—a story that would eventually become the epitome of the American Dream. Jai Nagarkatti emigrated from India with little more than the clothes on his back in 1970. A few years later, he and Susan were married. Jai earned a master’s degree in chemistry and in 1976, he took a job with the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation. It wasn’t long before the couple had a daughter. “We scrimped and saved, and it was hard work,” she recalls. “That is the typical American story. My husband worked long hard hours, but I don’t want to sound like, Poor me, I’ve had a hard time. However, there were times when we gave up family things because Jai’s work was paramount and that’s just the way it was.”
Jai stayed with Sigma-Aldrich his entire career and eventually moved to the company’s headquarters in St. Louis. In 2004, he was named president, then shortly thereafter, chairman of the board. Jai Nagarkatti became the head of a global corporation with more than 7,000 employees in 35 countries. It is the classic American Dream story: A young immigrant, who comes to America with very little, gets an education, works hard, climbs his way up through the ranks and makes it to the top. The story couldn’t have been more perfect. But in 2010, just four years after reaching the summit of his career, Jai Nagarkatti died suddenly of an apparent heart attack.
It was at that time when Susan went back to work for the library. Actually, she had been asked to join the St. Louis County Library’s Foundation board shortly before Jai’s death. At first, she wasn’t sure if she could carry on, but even though she was still grieving, she attended her first board meeting just a month following her husband’s passing.
And that when Susan’s new mission began: The Foundation was just starting to raise money to build its new Center for Family History, a place where all of our American stories can be discovered and told. Motivated by her desire to learn more about her history and wanting to spread the inspiring story of her and Jai’s American Dream, she donated $250,000 in honor of her husband to get the project started. “It was important to me because I felt that Jai needed to be remembered,” Susan explains. “On a larger scale, I think everybody would like to know their background. It seems daunting to get started, but with the Center for Family History, we’ll have all the necessary pieces for people to investigate their backgrounds and history.”
Susan wasn’t done yet: She issued a challenge donation for an additional $250,000. Monsanto answered the challenge, and now the center is almost halfway to reaching its goal of $18 million.
Someday in the near future, when the Center for Family History opens its doors in Chesterfield, other families will have a better chance to uncover their own American stories. We all have one, and no two are exactly the same. Just ask Susan Nagarkatti. She should know. After all, she is a librarian.