Beena and Victor Thannickal
Indian Couple Likes Brook Highlands’ Neighborliness
By Jeff Hansen
Beena Thannickal came to the U.S. from the state of Kerala, India, at age 5. Her father was studying engineering in Hartford, Conn., and the rest of the family was finally able to join him.
She had no American clothes until the Central Baptist Church and her school collected donations. She knew no English, only her native Malayalam language.
In the kindergarten class, when a boy kept pinching her, “I didn’t know how to tell the teacher he was pinching me,” Beena said. “So I went up to the teacher, pinched her and pointed to him.”
After her father was hired by Northeast Utilities, Beena grew up in Middletown, Conn.
She learned English with the help of an English-as-a-second-language teacher and by imitating the actors on “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island.” Every night, she and her family gathered to watch Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.”
Beena worked in New York City after graduating from the University of Connecticut, where she also took time to become a U.S. citizen. One day, she got a phone call from her father.
“Hey,” he said. “There’s this guy and his name is Victor, and he lives in Oklahoma, and he’s studying medicine.”
“Hector?” Beena asked.
“He’s going to be in New York to visit his father, and I’d like you to go meet him,” her father said.
Beena’s first reaction was “no way, Jose” because of her new-found Americanized thoughts about love and marriage, but eventually this quasi-arranged marriage worked — they met in April, were engaged in May and married in August 1990.
Victor Thannickal’s father is a missionary in Bangalore, India, where he runs New Life College, which trains pastors, evangelists and teachers. Like Beena, Victor’s family has roots in Kerala and speaks Malayalam. Victor grew up in Kerala and Bangalore, and he began learning English in the second grade.
Victor got a yen to study in the U.S. at age 13 after spending a year in Pasadena, Calif., where his father trained at the Fuller Theological Seminary.
Those connections led Victor to Southern California College — a private Christian school that is now Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. — and acceptance to Oral Roberts University for his medical training.
His choice of medical schools was limited because he had only a student visa. The student visa also blocked him from getting educational loans, so Victor worked his way through medical school and also got support from family and friends.
Victor and Beena began married life in Tulsa, where Victor was chief resident at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. They then spent 10 years in Boston, where their three children were born, and eight years in Ann Arbor, Mich.
In 2009, UAB recruited Victor, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist and an expert in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, to come to Birmingham. Once again, the family had to pick a new place to live.
“We didn’t know the neighborhoods at all,” Beena said. “But I went online — I wanted good public schools, I wanted diversity.”
She picked Brook Highlands in North Shelby County.
“I didn’t want to be in a neighborhood where I just wave to the neighbors from afar. We live in a cul-de-sac, we know everyone on the street, and we interact with them,” Beena said.
The children started classes at Oak Mountain Intermediate School, and the Thannickal family joined Shades Mountain Independent Church. Beena took a year off work to help her children adjust to their new community and school. Hana is now 19, in her sophomore year at Auburn University. Halle, 16, and Luke, 15, are a junior and sophomore at Oak Mountain High School.
At UAB, Victor heads the division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine, where he recently was awarded a $9.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to identify and test potential treatments for pulmonary fibrosis. Beena is a media relations specialist at UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Beena said she has seen an increase in diversity since coming to Alabama.
“There are three Indian grocery stores, and I have four or five Indian restaurants to pick from, one (Silver Coin Indian Grill in Hoover) specifically with south Indian food,” she said.
Connecticut, however, is still dear to her heart.
“Middletown, Conn., is where my father is buried,” she said. “And Middletown is where I will be buried, because that’s my hometown.”