From the beginning, life posed challenges for Shakil Khan. He was born in March of 1947 in Bareilly, India as the youngest of five children. That was the year of the country’s independence from Great Britain, and the ensuing bloody India-Pakistan War, which led to a great migration on the subcontinent.
“Facing unimaginable hardship, hunger, the risk of bloodshed, or losing their lives and their children,” Shakil’s family left their possessions behind in 1948 and set out on foot to begin the 900-mile journey to Karachi, Pakistan. After years of turmoil, they eventually settled into a routine, with both parents working as art teachers, until Shakil’s mother died from heart disease 11 years later. Those difficult early years created a scrappy and intelligent man, who later became an example to many on overcoming obstacles.
He worked hard, earned academic scholarships and found that he was “hooked on excelling.” Shakil graduated from the University of Karachi with the university’s highest-grade point average ever recorded. He was awarded a coveted United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) scholarship to attend any university in the world. He remembered a visiting professor who taught Quantum Chemistry, Dr. Arthur A. Frost, from Northwestern University in Illinois, who had become a friend. Shakil decided upon Northwestern, was accepted and headed to America.
Shakil arrived in 1970 with a few coins in his pocket,
and no credit cards or specific destination address.
The designated UNESCO representative was ill and couldn’t meet him at the airport, so Shakil found himself alone in a strange city and land. He was told he would need to pick up his stipend check from the International Student Affairs Office at the university opened the next day.
What to do? He remembered a young American he’d met in Pakistan two years earlier. Using one of his precious dimes, he called the old friend, who soon picked him up and let him sleep on the sofa that night. Shakil, carrying his one bag, found Professor Frost’s office the next morning.
This young Pakistani who knew little of America and the culture completed his master’s degree at Northwestern in 1971. He also learned a lot during that year, including how to drive, date and dance. He took up photography, jogging and ice skating – and then went on to golf, volleyball, tennis and handball.
Shakil met Kristine Schoening through a friend, and fell in love. He proposed in 1972 and they married in 1974, three days before he completed and passed his oral defense for his PhD. The newlyweds then headed to Pakistan so that Shakil could fulfill a commitment to UNESCO by teaching at the Islamabad University.
Conditions were deplorable, with few modern amenities. Corruption was rampant. And the system was falling apart. The situation continued to deteriorate and within a few years they knew they had to leave Pakistan. On the day Shakil went to the American Consulate to get an immigration visa, there was a military coup, and martial law declared. Using two-way airplane tickets to give the impression that they would return, Shakil and Kristine escaped the country. When the plane lifted off the runway, they celebrated.
They eventually moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where Shakil became a PhD chemist at Mobay Chemical Corporation (which became Miles, USA, then Bayer-USA and eventually Bayer Material Science). He worked there, earning regular promotions, for nearly 35 years until he retired. He then started a second career as an IT consultant for PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, began working as a systems data analyst, and, at age 73, became vice president.
Shakil and Kristine raised and were devoted to three “blessings,” their children Julianna, Nicholas and Rachel. Sadly, Shakil’s loving wife Kristine passed to her heavenly home after 43 years of marriage and a decade-long battle with cancer.
We know that in this world there are troubles. That much is certain. For all the struggles Shakil faced, he has been able to realize and share with others the importance of perseverance. He easily tells others the stories of adversities faced and overcome.
To those who know Shakil, his ability to keep going in the face of difficult odds is inspirational.
His friend Mike Oleck explains what a gift Shakil can be. “He gets personal with situations and people to really understand what is going on. Then he focuses on how he can help.” He never tires of assisting others in matters large and small.
God uses Shakil Khan, born during a bloody time in India and raised a world away in Pakistan, to demonstrate triumph and adaptability to those he encounters today. Perhaps that's why, one might muse, he makes such an impact at this very different time and place.