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Devout LIer who taught his children that nothing was unattainable, dies at 88

Varughese O. Mathai.

Varughese O. Mathai. Credit: Family Photo

On Saturday evenings, Varughese O. Mathai readied his white dress shirt, freed of wrinkles, and black suit pants. He was not one to procrastinate. Emails and calls were answered promptly; forgiveness for indiscretions was offered before tomorrow.

On Sunday, his priorities were clear.

"I recall his eagerness to go to church every Sunday," said his son, George Vergis, who grew up in the Bronx and lives in Oregon. "He insisted on being well dressed in fully-pressed, white full-sleeve shirt, tie, and often wearing a suit."

Mathai, his life sculpted by faith, treated prayer as a tool at his disposal. When his daughter Macy George was taking medical school exams, he noted the dates and times so that he might pray accordingly. Often, he and his daughter prayed together.

"He is my strength," said Macy George, who grew up in New York and lives in Michigan. "He told everyone, and my mom also, ‘Pray together, we’re going to see the victory.’"

Mathai, who spent his last years in Manhasset Hills, was an ambitious and devout man who wore a perpetual smile and connected with everyone, his daughter said — "It came naturally to him" — but he was intent on proving his independence throughout his life. He lived that way until May 30, when he died at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset of complications from a stroke. He was 88.

Born in Kerala, India, in February 1933, Mathai moved to Malaysia as a young man to look for work. He taught himself the Malay language, then English, and began work for the British rubber manufacturing company Socfin. In this formerly foreign place, he became a general manager.

In 1961, in his late 20s, Mathai married Annamma Varkey, with whom he would have three children. After marrying, the two moved to Bahrain so Mathai could work as a manager for a civil engineering firm based in England. In the 1980s, with their children, the couple immigrated to the United States and settled in the Bronx.

Still, Mathai had not finished exploring. Having retired from their secular jobs, he and Annamma moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1998. In the wake of many medical challenges, Annamma died in January 2010, and in 2017, Mathai returned to New York to live with his daughter Daisy Varughese and her family in Manhasset Hills.

Mathai's travels were proof, he told his children, that nothing was unattainable. If he could start his career so young in a country whose language he could not yet speak, anything was reachable, he would say.

Offsetting the fervor with which he explored the world was a gentleness he imparted on those around him. Calm and quiet, he warned his children to "walk carefully" when their surroundings were delicate, Macy recalled.

He would employ a metaphor, through his words illustrating a department store stocked with decorative items of gold, diamonds and glass. "You don’t walk in that place carelessly," Macy said. "You walk really slowly, not knocking everything down."

And yet he was proactive. He tackled even trivial tasks with a sense of immediacy, Daisy said. When his children or grandchildren expressed a need, he addressed it right away.

"Even though my mom passed away, he was like a mother figure also," Daisy said. "Whenever we are in need, we know we can just approach him and he is there for us."

His love of singing reflected a similar dichotomy. A recreational photographer in constant awe of nature, Mathai was calm and quiet. But he loved music and would sing along as his family members played instruments, especially during family prayer, Daisy said.

Mathai is survived by daughter Daisy and her husband, Varughese Chacko; daughter Macy George and her husband, James George, of Troy, Michigan; son George Vergis and his wife Shiny Vergis, of Portland, Oregon; and 10 grandchildren.

A memorial service was held June 4, and burial was at All Saints Cemetery in Great Neck.

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