from October 21, 2002, News-Sentinel
East Indian individualist found rewarding work, home in East Tennessee
By Frank Munger, News-Sentinel senior writer
October 21, 2002
OAK RIDGE - In rebellious moments, sons often go to great lengths to spite their fathers. Thomas Zacharia went to America.
Zacharia got upset when he learned, soon after going to work in the family's construction business, that fellow employees were providing regular reports to his father. He didn't like being monitored, so he decided to leave Cochin, a city on India's southeast coast, and taste life outside the reach of his privileged, well-to-do family.
"Looking back at that, I feel very childish. But I was a child," said Zacharia, now 45 years old and an associate director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
He didn't intend to stray for long. Despite the teenage tussles, he had a great family life.
"My father was the most open-minded person you could have, so I had tremendous freedom growing up," Zacharia said.
Instead of trying to stop the trip to the United States, Zacharia's father guided him to the University of Mississippi, where he knew a member of the faculty. There, Zacharia earned his master's degree.
Upon his return to India, he got married. The couple decided to honeymoon in the United States, also giving Zacharia a chance to earn his doctorate and flex his individuality one more time before returning to home and family obligations.
Things, of course, don't always go as planned.
At Clarkson University in New York state, Zacharia and his young wife experienced cold weather for the first time in their lives.
"We had an apartment on top of this pizza place, with really high ceilings, and all we had was this tiny little space heater. My wife's toes were getting blue," he said.
They moved their bed into the closet because that was the only place they could keep warm.
With about a year to go on his degree in computer sciences, Zacharia had an opportunity to present a paper at a technical workshop held in Gatlinburg. Soon after that, he was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at ORNL from a scientist who heard Zacharia's presentation on computational modeling of welding processes.
His doctoral advisor at Clarkson figured if Oak Ridge thought enough of Zacharia to offer him a job, then maybe he was ready for his doctorate. He became Dr. Zacharia well ahead of schedule and reported for work at ORNL in 1987.
His upstart career took hold in Oak Ridge, and Zacharia didn't return to India as planned, although he took a year's leave from the laboratory after his father's death in 1993 to return home and take care of family business.
He's proud to be an American, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1997. Both his children were born in the United States, his daughter in New York, his son in Tennessee.
"One of the greatest tributes I can say about being at this laboratory and in this town is that it's only very infrequently that I think of the fact that I was not born and raised here. ... I'm an East Tennessean."