Told by Sundar Shadi's daughter, Zilpha Paganelli.
The article below was reproduced exactly as written for "The Mirror" - The Richmond Museum Association Newsletter. Winter-Spring 2005. Volume 54, Number 1.
In June 1900 Sundar Lamba was born in Chak Shadi, a small village in Punjab, India. Both of his parents were born in Punjab, an extensive area in the northwest of India. Major rivers, the Indus, Ganges and the Iruande drained through vast regions, producing fertile soil for agriculture. Grains, sugar cane, Indian rubber and tobacco were some of the main products. In earlier years, one of the major modes of transportation was by boats, which were made from bullock (steer or oxen) skins. Native travelers were taken across rivers by men on each side. The desired number of skins was fastened together by poles so that the ferry boat could be made any size. Two oarsmen sat on another inflated skin and pushed the craft to the other side of the river. One of the major advantages of these ferries was that they were very light in weight and could be carried on one’s shoulder, inflated and presto! be in business.
Sundar lived on a farm with his parents, four brothers and one sister. During a violent Moslem uprising the family fled to Pakistan, one brother was killed. Another brother was killed in 1918 during World War 1. As a boy, Sundar was sent to Moslem-Sikh schools. Because of the tropical-like climate and widespread agricultural possibilities, Sundar’s brother urged him to pursue a career in Promology, the science of agriculture, growth and production. His intent was that Sundar would return to Punjab and spread his knowledge throughout the region. Sundar came to the University of California in Berkeley in 1921 where in 1926 he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Pomology and in 1929, his Master of Science in Subtropical Horticulture. His return to Punjab was not as had been anticipated. He became disenchanted with the idea of staying in Punjab and desired to return to the United States.
It was not long before Sundar Lamba returned to the United States. Using the name “Lamba” on his immigration papers became a perplexing problem. Eventually, the authorities advised that he just sign his name as Sundar Sikh Shadi, being a former resident of Chak Shadi. He returned to the University of California at Berkeley where he met Dorothy Clotelle Clarke. There were married in Carson City, Nevada on September 22, 1934. Why Carson City? ”Just because they wanted to. Small wedding, no fuss”. Her parents were from Kentucky. Dorothy was a student pursuing a career in Spanish.
Sundar and Dorothy had three daughters, Zilpha Tedforda Shadi (Mrs. George Roland Paganelli), Ramona Rhea Shadi (Mrs. William Walter Miller), and Verna Carol Shadi. Their grandchildren are: Carl, Anna Elizabeth and Laura Rose Paganelli: Shawn Nathaniel and Alisa Christine Miller, Garrick Michael and Danielle Christine Miller.
They built and lived in their home on the Arlington in El Cerrito, California. The girls attended local schools, Portola (then a Junior high school) and El Cerrito High School. They all graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. Mom taught as a Professor of Spanish at the University. Dad owned and operated a service station in Berkeley. He became a U.S. citizen in 1948.Throughout his entire career, Sundar was vitally interested and devoted to his family and community .Although he didn’t pursue his profession as a pomotologist, he did continue his interest in the science. He published research about subtropical horticulture and became an elected member of professional honor societies: Phi Sigma Biological society and the Society of Subtropical Horticulturists.
Sundar’s commitments, contributions and awards are legendary and worthy of note: Life Member and eight year President of the P.T.A., Chairman of Student Talent Shows, Representative at Richmond elementary and secondary school board meetings. Vice President California Council of Dad’s Clubs, Member of El Cerrito Park and Recreation Commission, Founder and first President of the India Association (established to promote cultural understanding and friendship between India and U.S.). Member (five times) Citizen’s Executive Committee for bond and tax elections for the Richmond School District: Charter member: The Sponsoring Body of California Institute of Asian Studies. El Cerrito Historical Society. Director Contra Costa Symphony Association, as well as member of several community and regional organizations. Among the many awards that Sundar received throughout his life were: Richmond Education Association Award for Service to Our Schools, Golden Apple Certificate for Outstanding Contributions to Elementary Education, El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce, Distinguished Citizen Award. United States Committee for the United Nations Distinguished Citizen Award, Outstanding Immigrant to the United States from India. Certificate of Recognition from the International Institute of the East Bay, California Park and Recreation Society and Honorary Membership Rotary Club Award.
Sundar was also a recipient of many outdoor Christmas Display awards: San Francisco Examiner Outdoor Lighting Contest, Northern California Outdoor Christmas Tree Association Grand Award, General Electric National Outdoor Christmas Decoration Contest (second prize). He also received many Christmas display community contests and awards and featured in Sunset Magazine.
If one were to describe Sundar’s many legacies, without a doubt, it would be his famous outdoor Christmas display. And how did it all start?
Well, the neighbors put up Christmas lighting and other decorations. He thought “I should do something too”. It all began in 1949 with the big star placed in the center at the top of the vacant lot next door. He found a company in Lost Angeles that made Wise Men. Now, being a retired business man, he thought, “Why don’t I try making these things myself”. He tried making some animals without much success, then decided to try using paper mache. He went to the library to research paper mache technique and studied animal pictures on Christmas cards. He started making sheep. More animals followed. He bought the first head of an angel. The first head of a person he made looked so much like a friend of his, he decided not to use it. The heads were put on the front steps to dry. The first one was put on the top step. Soon heads were down on all of the steps.
His wife helped by choosing materials, making clothes and offering ideas. Items were stored in the basement, the furnace room and storage area back of the kitchen. One camel was left out because it was so large it took four firemen to move it. One dog was in the living room and never put out. He used old coffee cans and lampshades, milk cartons, fruit boxes and wood to build the city. More than 100 buildings make up the city, more than 60 sheep are on the hillside. Sheepdogs and shepherds tend them, while the Three Wise men ride camels toward the city. An angel watches over the scene as the huge star shines over the entire scene.
Shadi was Hindu, not Christian. He designed the display as a holiday scene that can be seen to represent the viewpoints of many religions. And the Christmas music! It had all been taped from records onto large reels and played from a recorder.
With Christmas approaching, Shadi would start preparing for his display: some paper mache repairs, repainting buildings, always work to be done. He would start planning in September. In later years, Shadi received many offers to help, but did not like to accept more than three because he wanted to retain his own artistic ideas. Some Boy Scouts would help to move the figurines.
Shadi, the kind and gentle man, the man with the friendly and outgoing personality, could always be seen chatting with the children among the hundreds of people when they stopped by to admire and receive the joys of the Christmas spirit as they wondered in awe at the magnificent display. People came from everywhere.
Shadi died in 2002 at the age of 101, just one month shy of his 102nd birthday.
And what about “the lot next door when it is not Christmas?” Well, each Spring it took on a life of its own. At this writing the entire area is covered with a blanket of lush green grass. A single deep orange poppy blooms near the center, and a narcissus flower pokes its head up near the bottom. Sections of rolled burlap can be seen holding back the fertile soil nurtured by the science of Pomology. But in the past, he planted flowers that defined oriental rugs, other times just a wild array of color and another year the American flag. Visitors to the area eagerly awaited his Spring creations.
The beloved display echoed the Christmas Spirit of the entire city of El Cerrito. Citizens of the community were determined that the display would continue. It has been purchased by Soroptimists International of El Cerrito. The new site for the display is located on Moeser Lane on land used by PG&E. Plans are being made to provide electrical power for lights and the music. Dedicated volunteers have worked hard to restore some of the images after being in storage. They have been able to put the display together for the last two years with the hope that the life and spirit of Sundar Shadi will continue to enlighten and shine from the hillside forever more.