Guest Perspective: Dalip Singh Saund, Inspiring Leadership

May 05, 2014

Daily Journal
Op-Ed Page

By Jerry Hill

A couple of years ago, I met a constituent whose family history now reminds me how inspiration comes from all corners. Sometimes we discover it anew. Sometimes it’s purely by coincidence.

In 2012, Eric Saund came to have lunch with me and to tour the state Capitol, his prize from a San Carlos Lions Club charity auction. When I proudly pointed out the desk of former governor Earl Warren, Saund shared an interesting coincidence: We both had touchstones in Warren. At that time, I was the lucky occupant of the Assembly office where Warren’s desk resides. Eric Saund’s was personal. His great uncle, Emil Kosa, was a well-known California artist who was selected to paint the official portrait of Warren when he ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court as chief justice.

Little did I know until now that there was one more interesting coincidence: Eric Saund’s paternal grandfather was a legislator as well — a history-making one.

In 1956, county judge and small businessman Dalip Singh Saund from the tiny Imperial Valley town of Westmorland, became the first Asian American, and the first Sikh, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He made quite a splash, serving three terms before suffering an untimely stroke, receding from public view — and public memory. This was Eric Saund’s grandfather, who was born in Punjab in 1899, before India’s independence.

In recent days, the first documentary about Congressman Saund has been screening in Bay Area colleges, Sikh temples and selected Silicon Valley companies. I had a chance to see it. Eric Saund and his aunt provided photographs of his grandfather and footage from a 1959 televised interview that shows viewers the dynamism and optimism that no doubt played a role in Dalip Singh Saund’s public success.

He arrived at the University of California at Berkeley in 1920 as a graduate student inspired by Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln. It was also a time when laws barred most Asians from immigrating, from owning land or becoming citizens. American women were stripped of their citizenship when they married Asian immigrants, as his wife, Marian, was. He worked for legislation that allowed Indians and Filipinos to naturalize in 1946. And then, as soon as he could, he ran for judge.

“Everyone thought I had no chance,” he recalls about his first campaign in a 1959 television interview. “But I had faith in the American sense of justice and fair play.”

What may be surprising to some is that Saund’s election to Congress 58 years ago didn’t happen in the polyglot milieu of the San Francisco Bay Area or in Hawaii. It took place in the 29th Congressional District, which then stretched from arid farmlands to the resorts of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, all the way to the Mexican border, encompassing both Riverside and Imperial counties. That same area is divided into five districts today. As I learned more of Congressman Saund’s story, the more I realized how far we’ve come as a country since then, but also how special a person he was, that Americans could see themselves and their values when he spoke passionately about the principles that form the foundation of our country.

In 1963, Congressman Saund suffered a massive, paralyzing stroke on a plane en route to Washington, D.C. He never recovered. He was forced to withdraw from public life long before he was ready. What might have become a greater career became an intriguing footnote in history.

Eric Saund, now a Palo Alto research scientist, shared the viewpoint he says he learned from his grandfather and his family.

“What he modeled for me was to take what life gives you and make the most of it,” Eric Saund said. “He got some great cards because he had a great personality. He was so optimistic. He had some bad cards because there was a lot of prejudice. He did the best he could with what he had.”

Indeed. Better than most. There is something else to take away from Dalip Singh Saund’s story. Through it, we can glimpse the America Saund saw, the one that reminds us of the America our better selves can build.

Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, represents the 13th District in the California Senate.