CANAL FULTON — From his solitary flight to freedom to the inspirational wristbands he never removes, Durgesh Parbhoo has emerged from South African apartheid as a proud and grateful American.
The longtime owner of Doog’s Minit Mart on Locust Street in Canal Fulton started from scratch when he arrived in the U.S. 34 years ago. He also set an enviable benchmark for humanitarian and civic contributions by helping with fundraisers and other events to benefit area schools and communities.
The Northwest Local Schools Board of Education will salute Parbhoo tonight with an honorary high school diploma for his countless contributions.
Barely 18 when he fled the endless cycle of violence, segregation and poverty in Johannesburg, Parbhoo was one year shy of getting his diploma when he emigrated.
"We are giving him an honorary degree as a thank-you for all he has done for us," said Northwest Treasurer Dan Levengood. "He provides water for outdoor events, donates baskets (of food) for raffles, and is always willing to back school levies by putting signs in his store windows."
Mike Shreffler, the school district's superintendent echoed those comments, adding "Doog has been a great part of our community and a supporter of our district. We think this is an awesome thing to give to him."
Tonight's board meeting is the first of the 2018-2019 school year, which began last week.
Parbhoo, 53, is an energetic man with a litany of philosophies that have guided his life, and those of his two daughters, who are pursuing careers in medicine.
He enjoys sharing his convictions: Always do the best you can. Anything is possible. Develop a good work ethic. Always talk respectfully to others. Get an education or learn a trade. Give back to the community.
And smile, an expression that comes naturally to him.
"Doog" or "Doogs," as he is known to customers and friends, is the sobriquet he acquired as a youth.
He and his family lived in a triplex of sorts, with three families each occupying a 500-square-foot house with no indoor sanitation. The three families — about 15 people — shared a bathroom and shower located outside.
"Living like that didn’t phase me one bit," he said with a smile. "I didn’t know any better. We didn’t complain about it because that’s just the way it was."
His first experience earning money came when he was just 8. His business acumen seemed to kick in early because he spent long hours on the streets of Johannesburg selling women’s pantyhose and stockings, netting a 15-cent profit on each sale.
Not only did he have to dodge gangs, military tanks and riots to get to school, he had to walk two miles to a station to catch a 45-minute train ride, then walk another mile to reach school.
When he was 17, he found himself in the middle of an uprising and was pelted with stones, fracturing his jaw and hip and leaving him to suffer with lockjaw for 45 days.
When he left his homeland, he believed that if he worked hard, he could make it without having a diploma. He arrived in Jackson Township, where his sister was living, and began busing tables and washing dishes at a favored Belden Village restaurant. He was its first employee in 1984.
Parbhoo said he routinely worked 17- to 18-hour days, clocking 100 to 120 hours a week.
"The only way to make it was to have a strong work ethic," he said. "I did construction, bartending and other kinds of jobs, too. I didn’t let anything hold me back."
Besides, he said, having a job wasn’t work; it was "fun." (Again, he smiled.)
On Aug. 6, 1992, Parbhoo became a U.S. citizen in a private courthouse ceremony before a roomful of friends and family. "It was an honor to become an American citizen," he said. "Some people complain about so many little things — but here they have it made."
In 1993, Parbhoo borrowed money from banks and friends to purchase the convenience store on Locust Street S, gradually converting it into a wine, liquor and beverage store. Three years later, he bought Zeno’s Drive Thru across the street.
Although he started working the businesses by himself, he now has 12 employees, including Larry Budd, 58, a life resident of Massillon. Budd worked 10 years for the previous store owner, in addition to the 24 years he’s spent with Parbhoo.
A longtime sports fan, Budd characterized their relationship as friends, rather than boss and employee. When the time comes, he plans to retire from there. "We’re not a store," he said. "We’re a family. Doog is a good guy to work for."
Parbhoo, a Jackson Township resident, values his employees. So do his daughters. "They call me Uncle Larry," Budd added.
Store hours are every day — 365 days a year since 1994 — from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. To give his workers time off on holidays, Parbhoo and his daughters, Kajal and Kareesma, have worked Thanksgiving and Christmas for many years. Proceeds from sales, usually amounting to several thousand dollars, go as bonuses to Budd and other workers.
Kajal, 20, is studying pharmacology at Ohio State University, and will graduate in a few years. Kareesma, 22, studied molecular genetics and participated in cancer research for three years, also at OSU. She works as a pediatrics genetics counselor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus and is applying for graduate school.
Like their father, both girls have donated their time to fundraisers, in their case for cancer research and sponsoring dinners for young patients and their families.
Following in their father’s footsteps, the young women have a long-standing tradition of letting their hair grow past their waists then having it cut and donated to children with cancer.
"I would not trade this city or country for anything," he said as the smile left his face and he became downright serious. "And never, ever, have I wanted my daughters to join me in the business."
Parbhoo said the two wristbands he always wears are about his beliefs and a favorite cause. One contains words of encouragement such as "keep it simple" and "be positive."
On the other is written, "Folds of Honor," an organization that provides educational scholarships to children and spouses of veterans who have fallen and become disabled while serving.
Then he spoke of one more thing he has to do: Get a GED.
"One reason I didn't finish my high school here, once I got here I had to work. I helped put my siblings and niece and nephew through school," he explained. He said he plans to sell the store when he’s in his 60s then go back to school.
"It’s something I want to accomplish," he said as he smiled and walked to a store aisle to tend to merchandise.