By Jessica Leigh Brown
When the Airees arrived in Martin in 1965, they couldn’t have predicted the impact they would make on the University of Tennessee or the impact it would make on them.
Fresh from graduate school at Oklahoma State University, a young Shakti K. Airee received several job offers to teach chemistry. He chose UT Martin. “I just liked this place,” says Airee. “The chemistry building was brand new, and I knew they had a good administration. Everything was good.”
Among the first Indians to settle in northwestern Tennessee, Airee and his wife, Shashi, faced a lack of cultural community. Thousands of miles from their families in Panjab, the Airees and their two young children, Hans and Rita, settled into their new life in small-town Tennessee. “It was very unusual and novel for us to come to this area, but we found Martin’s residents to be very hospitable and wonderful people,” Airee remembers. “We have enjoyed every bit of our time here.”
In the years following their move, the Airees added two more children to their family: Anita and Richa. After struggling with illness for some time, 8-year-old Rita died in 1974.
From his first days in Martin, Airee invested much of his energy in teaching. Determined to bring the best professional opportunities to his students, Airee established a chapter of student members of the American Chemical Society in the 1970s. “Every year, he takes a group of students to the national ACS conference,” says Charles Thomas, department chair of chemistry and physics at UT Martin. “It gives them quite an experience, and it’s a worthwhile activity that the university helps to support.” Today, the UTM chapter receives the largest number of outstanding ratings in the nation.
Airee delights in his students’ achievements. “When I see them develop as leaders and execute a project with finesse, they are so happy,” he says. “It makes me happy, too.”
As a colleague, Airee inspires respect. “He brings a sense of calm stability whenever an issue arises,” says Thomas. “He’s a factor in the positive working relationships we’ve always had in this department.”
Over the past five decades, Airee also has invested wholeheartedly in the wider Martin community. He’s a charter member of the local Kiwanis Club and has remained an advocate of local scouting groups long after his children received the clubs’ highest honors. Airee also worked with the UT Martin Museum for more than two decades, coordinating traveling exhibits and helping to expand the archival collection.
“Dad is all about developing the city along with the university,” says daughter Anita Airee. “He is patriotic to Martin. When they broadened the road into town to a four-lane highway, he was very proud.”
In 1980, Shashi Airee began her own 26-year career at UT Martin’s housing department. “In those days, every dorm had a front-desk receptionist to transfer incoming calls and to manage activities of the dorm,” Anita recalls. “That’s the role my mother filled at one of the dormitories.” In her years on staff, Shashi befriended and positively impacted many young undergraduates. “She comes from a large, close-knit family known for their integrity,” says Anita. “Under no circumstances does she compromise who she is, her family or her values.”
As the Airee children grew up, they all pursued undergraduate degrees close to home at UT Martin. All three proceeded to graduate school in pharmaceutical science, not far removed from their father’s world of chemistry. “My brother, Hans, is the one who pursued pharmacy first,” Anita explains. “Later, when I was deciding my own career path, he told me about clinical pharmacy.”
Hans (Martin ’87, HSC ’90) is now a field vice president at Glaxo Corporation in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anita (Martin ’89, HSC ’98), who gravitated toward patient care and teaching, specialized in clinical pharmacy and is an associate professor at the UT College of Pharmacy’s campus in Knoxville. Also a clinical pharmacist, Richa (Martin ’00, HSC ’05) lives and works in Huntsville, Alabama, today.
In 2011, the Airee siblings paid tribute to their parents’ legacy. “We have such warm memories of growing up in Martin,” says Anita. “Knowing our parents’ dedication and years of service, we wanted to create an endowment that would make a lasting impact. Between all of us, our family represents over 100 years at UT.”
Working with landscape designer John Watkins, the Airees crafted a campus sitting area that tells the story of their family’s history. “We designed a circular pattern like the spinning wheel on the Indian flag,” Anita says. “A nearby light pole lists all our names, including Rita’s. It turned out so beautifully, and Dad can look down from his office window and see people enjoying it.”
Airee’s dedication to his work has left an impression on the students and faculty at UT Martin. “His students can see his passion and care,” says daughter Richa. “I think that’s been his greatest impact. By investing in his students, he’s put UT Martin on the map in his field.” Hans agrees: “Everything he does is with integrity, and he’s laid a foundation for generations to come.”
For information about the S.K. and Shashi Airee Scholarship Endowment at UT Martin, visit utmforever.com/airee.