By Cypress Cove Resident Bev Lisle
The first time Suri and Edda were forced to flee from their homes was due to the violence of political turmoil. (“Get out or get killed.”) In 1947, when Suri was 13, his father pushed the older son, the youngest three daughters and, at the last minute, Suri, onto a crowded refugee train headed out of their home state in India, soon to become Pakistan.
After securing his younger sisters’ safety with family friends, his older brother set off to locate the rest of the family, and Suri found himself alone. While searching for an uncle in Delhi, he existed for four months on the streets, eating in refugee kitchens and sleeping in empty railroad cars. Once, waking up in an unfamiliar RR station, he simply “caught the free train back to Delhi.” He had the same shorts, shirt, and sandals he’d worn since his unplanned journey began, but no money, phone numbers or addresses.
Each evening, he joined the masses at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi, who offered hope through scripture and prayer. Suri’s businessman father was a community organizer for the Freedom from Britain Movement and a disciple of Gandhi.
Suri learned well the benefits of independence and resourcefulness. He fully appreciated his father’s insistence on education and social service, values further ingrained in him, those Delhi evenings, by Gandhi’s teachings.
When Suri’s family eventually reunited in a crowded refugee camp in Amritsar on the border between India and the new nation of Pakistan, he was to learn about the importance of family interdependence and living in harmony with others.
In 1944, at the end of WWII, when Edda was three, her family had to make a late-night escape by horse-drawn wagon, from Breslau, Germany, soon to become Wroclaw, Poland.
Edda and her family, forced to evacuate their home by the advancing Soviet Army, fled by train through Czechoslovakia to Bavaria in Germany. After enduring hardship and hunger along the way, they found refuge with a Bavarian farm family for a few years, then relocated to Goppingen, Germany when the economic climate improved.
Postwar, the currency had no value and food was scarce. They survived on basic food provided by their host family in return for farm work, on CARE packages from America, and by bartering (i.e., used boots for bicycle/sewing-machine repair).
Edda immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 under the sponsorship of a (not yet famous) Harvard political science professor. She had scarcely arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts when she met Suri in a car full of young people bound for the beach. He had arrived at Harvard in 1959 to study plant genetics.
Suri earned his PhD in 1964 and was off to Des Moines, Iowa where he began a career as a crop scientist, a “seedsman” at a small seed company founded by native son, Henry Wallace, seed scientist and formerly Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President under FDR.
Suri and Edda were married in Des Moines and immediately set off for the island of Jamaica on what friends called their “six-year honeymoon.”
During their first year of marriage, there were two more emergency evacuations. While Suri was visiting his parents in Amritsar, a war began between India and Pakistan. During a ceasefire between bombardments, Suri escaped to Calcutta, then through San Francisco and Mexico City, back to Jamaica.
That same year, while Edda and Suri were visiting the Dominican Republic, a revolution began; they were evacuated by U.S. Marine helicopter to an aircraft carrier and from there to a small boat which took them to San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1974, another hasty evacuation occurred when Suri and a colleague drove through the night from Managua, Nicaragua to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, as the Sandinista National Liberation Front began their revolution.
With Suri’s leadership in overseas operations, the “small” Des Moines company soon became a global leader in the hybrid seed industry. For 20 years, Suri traveled the world while Edda raised their four children plus one nephew in Des Moines, and they helped family members immigrate and pursue their education.
He left the company in 1988 and the couple began a lifetime of partnership in business and philanthropy. Together they created and operated several seed businesses in countries where hybrid seed development by the private sector was still in the early stages.
With increasing success, they divested a company in India, sharing the proceeds with their 650 employees and beginning to set up the first of two foundations focused on helping the poor in rural India. A few years later, they did the same, this time in Egypt.
Suri—scientist, businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, ever the internationalist, was always on the cutting edge of biotechnology and the use of information technology in hybrid seed development. Their seed businesses were always about the development of better-performing hybrid seeds.
“There were no hybrids in our food in the 1920s; the development and commercialization of hybrids revolutionized the food industry. Did you know that it takes, at the least, seven years to develop a new hybrid?”
“Agriculture is basically climate dependent. Good seed plus good soil and water are required to produce a decent crop. Poverty is triggered when crops fail; that is when the moneylenders (loan sharks) move in, especially in the developing countries. The size of a typical farm in India is about two acres. The success of crops on dry lands is dependent on the monsoon rains which have become erratic lately and may or may not come. Regardless, the farmer still owes the money.”
“It is very important that there be stable climate. Severe climate change is a recent global phenomenon. Warming of the planet means sea levels are rising. Coastal cities are sinking; islands have sunk; hurricanes are more frequent and more destructive. All must work together to cut carbon emissions which are increasing, and which cause global warming.”
The couple’s escapes from danger continued. In 2003, Suri and Edda got caught in the notorious New York City Blackout. It was dark throughout the city with no transportation of any kind to get to and from their hotel. They observed the eerie sight from their room on the 24th floor but they had to first climb the 24 stories to get there.
In 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, Suri was in downtown Tokyo on the fourth floor of a swaying office building while Edda sheltered from falling debris under a table at a nearby mall. Neither needed to be evacuated.
And finally, on September 28, 2022, the most recent escape from danger occurred. Suri and Edda were in their house on Captiva Island when Hurricane Ian arrived. Suri was recovering from hospitalization the previous day. Neither were injured in the storm, and their stilted home with secure roof survived nicely.
Suri, Edda and their visiting daughter were evacuated the following morning by the Sanibel Fire Department. They had already signed up for The Oaks but decided to move to The Harbour to await completion of construction.
Sehgal Foundation in the U.S. underwrites internships to send American students to their foundation in India; it also sponsors projects to protect and preserve the environment and to conserve genetic resources and biodiversity.
SM Sehgal Foundation in India has been portrayed in books and documentaries and received countless recognitions for their work in agricultural development, water management, good rural governance, and transformation of the lives of schoolchildren. All programs, directly or indirectly, address social justice issues, particularly gender equality and the empowerment of women, values that Suri and Edda share.
In 2021, the SM Sehgal Foundation won the Mahatma Award, the highest honor in India for social impact and change-making. In 2020, Sehgal Foundation in Des Moines was recognized with the U.S. Department of State Diplomacy Award for strengthening relations between the U.S. and India.
We realize that nothing lasts forever in life,
Neither the power nor the wealth,
But what lasts is the legacy
That one leaves behind.