"In the world, you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. Be strong." This was the mantra of Thomas Pushpamangalam, a highly respected zoologist and college professor. It was a philosophy the New Hyde Park resident tried to instill in his children and others.
"My dad was my idol," said Dr. John P. Thomas of New Hyde Park, Pushpamangalam's eldest son. "He was always humble and lived a very simple life. His presence always brought laughter and joy."
Pushpamangalam died of kidney failure on April 7. He was 89.
Thomas Pushpamangalam was born on June 9, 1932, in Karikattoor, a small village in Kerala, India. He completed his primary, secondary and collegiate education in India, earning a bachelor's in zoology from St. Berchmans College in Changanacherry, India.
"My father was offered admission to medical college, which, unfortunately, he could not pursue because of financial difficulty," said Thomas, who is a dentist. "He earned his master's degree in zoology at Benares Hindu University in Uttar Pradesh, India."
After graduation, Pushpamangalam married his wife, Leela, in 1959. (She died in 2007.) Together, they would raise three children.
Growing up, Thomas recalled that his father enjoyed entertaining family and friends through comedy, writing scripts and acting in plays, and maintaining many small aquariums throughout the house.
"He loved different varieties of fish. He also did scuba diving, which was related to his work," Thomas said of his father's employment by the government of India as an officer in the Central Fisheries Department from 1959 to 1963.
Pushpamangalam became an assistant professor of zoology at Devagiri College in Calicut from 1963 to 1967. In 1967, he arrived in the United States with a Fulbright fellowship to pursue his PhD. He completed his doctoral studies at New York University in 1975 and taught there for the next 29 years.
"When I think about my grandfather, I think of someone who was very dedicated and hardworking. He was one of the very first Malayalees who came to the United States, and I can't imagine how difficult it must have been not knowing anyone and having to adjust to a new culture and a new country," said granddaughter Dolly Thomas of New Hyde Park.
Pushpamangalam was a very religious man. In the 1970s, he was instrumental in the formation of the first Malayalee Association in New York, now known as Kerala Samajam of Greater New York. He was involved in the activities of various religious organizations such as the St. Thomas Ecumenical Federation of North America and the India Christian Assembly. He was an active member of the Church of South India Malayalam Congregation of Greater New York.
"For my grandpa, church was a place not where we came together to worship but to catch up with everyone and spend time in the community. This is something he would want for everyone who knew him — to keep the church alive," said Dolly Thomas.
In 2004, Pushpamangalam retired from his teaching career at NYU. His granddaughter said she will cherish the memory of going to work with him in the summer.
"He would take me to the lab and show me all the specimens and I got to play around with the microscopes and watch him teach biology," Dolly Thomas said. "During lunch, we walked to Washington Square Park, and the day would not be over without getting at least one item from the NYU bookstore."
Pushpamangalam's family and friends said he leaves a legacy of diligence, determination, and motivation.
"The warmth of his kindness and sense of humor will always be remembered by his family, friends, and community," said John Thomas.
In addition to his son John and granddaughter Dolly, Pushpamangalam's survivors include son Mathew P. Thomas of Levittown and daughter Mini Jacob of East Meadow; and grandchildren Dave, Mark, Merin, Shane and Sareena.
Services were held April 15 and 16 at the Church of South India Malayalam Congregation of Greater New York in Seaford. Pushpamangalam was buried at All Saints Cemetery in Great Neck.