In June, Forest Park resident Austin D’Souza, along with 20,000 Lions Club members, attended the organization’s international convention in Seattle. Last month he participated in the 20th Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Health of Vailankanni in India.
His involvement in both events illustrate how D’Souza understands his purpose in life — burning brightly like a candle, as the flame is fueled by the wax until there is nothing left.
D’Souza’s light certainly burned brightly in Mangalore, India, where he was born in 1950. Almost 30 years after he left India for Chicago, Mangalore locals still remember him as an actor and comedian on TV and the editor and publisher of three newspapers.
D’Souza’s celebrity status in the eyes of regular citizens started when he began speaking out against injustice. In 1979, a Hindu nationalist member of parliament named O.P. Thyagi tried to get a law passed prohibiting Christians and Muslims from converting people.
In response, the bishop in Mangalore called a meeting of priests, nuns and lay people to decide how to respond. When the bishop asked if anyone in the gathering wanted to say something, the 22-year-old D’Souza mounted the dais and proposed that Catholics in Mangalore stage a mass demonstration in the city’s central plaza. D’Souza printed 2,000 posters the next day, announcing the demonstration and denouncing Thyagi’s bill.
On the day of the demonstration at Nehru Maidan Park, 60,000 Catholics gathered to pray the rosary and listen to speeches. The police were there and so was the Indian central intelligence agency, agents of which — he learned later on — were asking people in Mangalore about this young troublemaker. The event came off without incident and D’Souza made a name for himself.
He also made a name for himself as the editor and publisher of three newspapers — a weekly, a bi-weekly and a monthly — in which he criticized corruption and injustice wherever he found it, in the government and even in the church.
D’Souza met his wife Terry and they married in 1980. “I had never even dated,” he recalled, “when a family I knew invited me to dinner at 8:30 one evening. There was a girl there who was living in Chicago at the time who had come back to visit her family. After arriving back home, he received a phone call from the girl’s family around midnight telling him to be at their parish church early the next morning.
When he asked what for, they told him that he and the girl were going to sign their wedding banns. “What do you think? Are you willing to marry her?” they asked.
“I didn’t know what to say,” he recalled. “When I called my parents and siblings that night, they said yes, go ahead.”
Life changed radically for D’Souza after immigrating to the U.S. in 1981. Though he received a Ph.D. in business management from the University of Illinois in 1986 and sent resumes everywhere, no one would hire him, often calling him overqualified. Others told him he lacked experience working with Americans, to which he replied, “How can I get experience if you don’t give me a chance?”
He finally landed a job as a lathe operator in a factory that made contact lenses. He got the job because he didn’t mention his Ph.D. on the application. Over time, the company recognized his leadership ability and promoted him to supervisor, but never anything commensurate with his qualifications.
When asked if he thought racism was the cause for the rejections, he answered simply “of course.” What a contrast to his experience in India. He said, “I felt like a bird in a cage.”
His experience with the Lions Club International here in the U.S., however, has been different. The list of awards and offices he has held in the fraternal organization fill a whole page.
Perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment is starting what is known as the Vision First program. In 2004, he was the district governor and learned that even though students in Chicago Public Schools were given eye exams, they weren’t given glasses when they needed them. That first year, partnering with Lens Crafters, the Lions Club donated 6,000 eyeglasses to kids in need. In 2016, 85,000 received them, and the program was taken over by the city of Chicago.
He has received three International Presidents Medals from Lions Clubs International, a Lifetime Community Service Award from President George W. Bush, and he and Terry received the Best Humanitarian Couple Award from Congressman Danny Davis.
Austin and Terry have been married for 37 years, have four adult children and have lived in Forest Park since 1981. The couple has invested in the Forest Park community. Austin, for example, has served on the St. Bernardine Parish Council and school board, participated in the Forest Park Neighborhood Watch, worked with the Friends of the Library, been a member of the Chamber of Commerce and participated in the Forest Park Citizens Police Academy. Last year he became a member of the newly formed Forest Park Diversity Commission.