Victor Taj: Unusual Tennessee connection

Marvin Westwestwords

OK, I got the message. The sporting world is all mixed up. I’ll try to help.

What follows is a story of influence, determination, service and humility – with just a touch of sports. If you don’t like it, send it back for a full refund.

Victor Taj (photo by Andrew Eades)

Victor Butt was born in Karachi, Pakistan, into a well-known Indian family, in 1943. His father, Major William Benjamin Butt, was a decorated military officer who became a big help to the British. He pulled off a daring reconnaissance of advance units of the Japanese army in Burma.

An uncle, Herbert Butt, found a way to study agriculture at the University of Tennessee. He eventually earned a doctorate at Cornell and worked for UNICEF in India. A UT celebrity, Dr. Andy Holt, liked him enough to go for a visit.

Another uncle, Dr. Ebenezer Krishnappa, taught engineering at Howard University.

The great honor Major Butt received, The Order of the British Empire, later became a stigma in India. The family endured death threats. It was decided that son Victor should finish his education in the United States.

Surprise, surprise, Victor applied for admission at the University of Tennessee. He was going to study aerospace engineering. Dr. Krishnappa was going to be his sponsor and manage the finances.

After a little journey of 8,000 miles, Victor ran into a small problem in Knoxville. The support money had evaporated in a spat between relatives. His visa said “student” but he couldn’t enroll without tuition. He was broke, no place to stay and facing deportation.

“I felt abandoned.”

Victor admits suicide flashed through his mind.

Dr. Holt, president of the university, was first to the rescue.

“He advised me to go to Johnson Bible College and avoid deportation. Dr. David Eubanks of Johnson Bible College advised me to consider being a minister instead of an aerospace engineer.”

Victor paid the small college costs by working on the college farm.

Tennessee track coach Chuck Rohe was next in the help line. Victor had been on a track team in India.

Chuck gave him another job, first as a counselor at summer sports camps, and then as an assistant manager for the UT track Vols.

“Later, I worked in the academic advising department as a tutor helping athletes, especially in remedial English and math.”

Victor says “It is possible Coach Rohe does not know the critical role he played at a very important time in my life … I believe God used Dr. Andy Holt and coach Chuck Rohe in helping me survive, in motivating me to do well in my studies and my work.”

After proper prodding, Victor told of his worst day at UT. Coach Ray Mears sent him to investigate why Bernard King was not attending class. Victor reluctantly knocked on the all-American’s dorm door.

Victor thinks Bernard did not appreciate being disturbed at 11 a.m. Victor recalls being surprised by the language and the message. He tried to filter his report to Mears. The coach demanded precise recall.

“Coach Mears went for a brisk walk. He soon returned with Bernard, who apologized twice. I said ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’”

Mears did not seem convinced. Victor did not stay for the third verse.

There are other landmarks in this unusual life.

“Due to jokes about my last name of Butt, I had it legally changed to Taj. That means ‘crown’ and in Taj Mahal, it means ‘Crown Mansion.’”

Victor Taj did more schooling, at Ashland Theological Seminary and Harvard. He earned a second master’s degree in Christian education. He became an ordained minister.

“I applied to well over 300 churches for ministry work. Three churches offered me jobs as a janitor.”

Old friends, Tennessee athletes, were troubled by that putdown. Former javelin champion Bill Skinner took it personally. Great football guard Charlie Rosenfelder, a pal from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was hurt. So was Bill Battle, former coach of the football Vols.

Victor used what he had learned and did what he could. He was twice a counselor at Olympics. He was involved in a ministry for truckers. He focused on helping military veterans, the disabled and even coaches who needed encouragement.

He has a treasured thank-you letter from Pat Summitt in response to his never-give-up letter to her.

This is the surprising truth: For the past 16 years, Victor Taj has been a church janitor in Ashland, Ohio.

“To be honest, I am deeply disappointed. Even though I have the degrees, they do not use me from the pulpit because I do not agree with certain sections of their doctrine.

“I look upon this as a lesson in humility. Someday the good Lord will smile upon me and lift me up. Meanwhile I continue to follow Coach Rohe’s example of shunning the limelight and working in the shadows.”

Victor tutors in math, English and psychology at North Central State College in Mansfield, Ohio. He is also a student in engineering design at the college, working on a football helmet that will prevent concussions.

“I am in the process of applying for a provisional patent application.”

He is writing a book about American presidents. He is particularly interested in the four faces on Mount Rushmore.

“I have studied American history and am fascinated with America’s political, cultural and spiritual heritage.

“When I speak to young Americans and tell them how much I do appreciate their country’s history and great presidents, I notice some have tears in their eyes.”

Is it possible this man from India loves America more than some of us insiders?

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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