Larry Sundram, ’68: Helping Where He Can
November 28, 2017 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
Growing up in India in a home with a dirt floor, Larry Sundram, ’68, never imagined he’d live the life he has in America, or achieve the professional success he did in the insurance business over the course of 35 years. But he did, and in gratitude, he has spent his retirement years giving others an opportunity to live lives they might otherwise never have been able to.
Larry, the eldest of six children born to Joseph and Husnara Sundram, came with his family to America in 1966, when he was 20 years old. His father took a position as a professor at Niagara University, enabling his children to attend the university tuition-free.
“We were strangers to America,” Larry says. “We were poorly dressed and spoke with an accent, but the students and faculty were so welcoming.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree, which he did in two and a half years, Larry enlisted in the Marine Corps. “I just felt it was my duty to serve,” he explains. “I chose the Marine Corps because I was intrigued by their bravado.”
This sense of obligation led, indirectly, to the first step on his career path: an entry-level job with the Traveler’s Insurance Company in New York City.
“There were two things that intrigued the recruiters,” he says. “One was that I had gone to a (highly regarded) Catholic school, and the second thing was that I enlisted in the Marine Corps at a time when most young people were protesting in the streets against the Vietnam War. That’s why both Niagara and the Marine Corps are near and dear to me.”
Larry worked at Traveler’s for 20 years, where his career progressed steadily and he ultimately held the position of vice president of the business diversification group, one of the youngest vice presidents at that time. A high-level position with the Prudential Insurance Group of America, and as president of The Prudential Property & Casualty Company and Reliance Direct Auto Insurance followed, until his retirement in 2000.
Larry and his wife, Linda, who had also been employed in the insurance industry, moved out West at that time to start a new chapter in their lives; this time, focusing on ways to give back for the prosperous lives they enjoyed.
Their initial work was with at-risk high school students, encouraging them to continue their education and helping them to set goals. He then became involved with Rotary International, focusing on sustainable projects around literacy, water, sanitation, health, child immunization, micro-lending for women, and nutrition in countries including Mexico, Ecuador, India, and Pakistan.
In Ecuador, for example, he helped introduce a “mechanical cow,” a pressure cooker that produced milk from soybeans. The milk was distributed to children each day, giving them 100 percent of their daily protein requirement, and the leftover mash was used by their mothers to make bread that they sold to purchase more soybeans.
In India, Larry and Linda supported micro-lending to help women translate their skills into viable businesses--from making crocheted household and holiday items to selling coffee from carts attached to bikes. Larry notes that this radically changed the way these women were viewed by their families and earned them respect as contributing members of their society.
Because they believe that the key to prosperity in poor countries is female education, the couple also has funded multiple projects for clean water and sanitation in girls’ schools. One such project involved the installation of vending machines and electronic incinerators for menstrual napkins. This helped to ensure sanitary disposal while reducing environmental waste and potential embarrassment that might lead girls at the onset of puberty to drop out of school, Larry says.
The couple has also assisted in bring the polio vaccine to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where transmission of the disease is still ongoing.
Giving children a chance at a better life is the crux of this volunteer work, Larry explains.
“If you start off behind the eight ball, it’s very hard to get even again,” he says. “So that’s kind of where we are--if kids are dropping out of school, seeing if there is something we can do, making sure they’re not injured or sick at the start of life, all those kinds of efforts.”
Larry and his wife also assist military families. They have established college scholarships and developed a program to provide free furniture and housewares to families living at the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton.
“We accept donations from wealthy families who are downsizing or who have passed away,” he explains. “We get their ‘worldly goods,’ which are usually terrific--couches, beds, washers, dryers, clothes, linens, kitchenware--and we give them free every week to almost 400 families.”
Motivating all his volunteer efforts is Larry’s enormous gratitude for the strong foundation he received at Niagara and in the Marine Corps, and for the opportunities he was given in America.
“I am a very different person today as a result of those strong foundations,” he says. “To see where I live now, it’s nothing I could have imagined. How do you rationalize that? For me, I want to leave the world a slightly better place than I found it. You can’t help everybody, but I help where I can. In many ways, this is the essence of the Vincentians.”