What does it mean to be an American? We continue our election year series, A Nation Engaged, by looking at American Identity.
Nearly four decades ago, Sunil Puri left Mumbai, India to visit a relative in the U.S. He showed up in Rockford, Illinois, fresh out of high school and with $150 in his pocket. He’s come a long way since 1979.
“I was a rebel who believed in the promise called America,” says Puri. And not with a solid blessing from his parents. But as the youngest of six sons, he knew the opportunities in his family’s business were limited for him.
Now when you step into the president of First Midwest Group's corner office on the top floor of one of his buildings on the east side of Rockford, the first thing you notice is not the wall to wall view of the rolling golf course. It’s the pictures. Every inch of wall space is covered with framed 8 by 10s of familiar faces -- mostly recent presidents --smiling alongside Puri and his family.
They’re the trophies of a fortune earned over three decades as a developer here and a testament to a fortune spent backing his favorite politicians and local charities. The 56 year old with the brushed-back black hair looks the part of the successful businessman, always in a dark conservative suit with a slightly less conservative tie, smiling and talking a mile a minute.
Puri worked every job he could once he decided to stay in Rockford, from pouring concrete to cleaning nursing home bedpans. His goal was putting himself through the accounting program at Rockford University. Puri says he was warmly embraced here: by elderly Swedes who helped him with his English. By families who included him in their holiday celebrations. By fellow students who wanted to learn more about his culture.
“People opened their arms and their hearts to immigrants,” he remembers, “Why are people so xenophobic all of a sudden? That’s what made American great! That welcoming built bridges far greater than any money and weapons could buy! It’s about people.”
Puri isn’t talking today about his preferences in this presidential election. A glance at the office photos shows him posing with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. And he was a delegate for Hillary Clinton at this year’s Democratic Convention. But campaign contribution records show donations to Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
Sunil Puri wants America’s next president to focus on bolstering the middle class by investing in what he calls the country’s biggest strength: its young people. He says being an American is about doing your part for your own community. For the wealthy, that means being compassionate.
“You will not be taking this money to the moon or to the Mars. It’s still going to be sharing the same earth with the same people who also deserve to have a decent lifestyle.”
Puri believes in investing in the middle. The middle class, the middle of the country, the political middle, with the hope more people will get the same chance he got as an immigrant here 37 years ago.