Born: Nov. 26, 1929. Resident of Greenbelt. Died May 20, 1999.
Lekh Raj Batra grew up in the 1930s in a small village in India where, for a time, long-established Hindu, Muslim and Sikh families lived in peace side by side with new arrivals from Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey.
Fittingly, his memorial service, which was held in Greenbelt after the 69-year-old research scientist died of a cerebral hemorrhage May 20, was equally eclectic. Presided over by the Rev. Daniel R. Hamlin of Greenbelt Community Church, the service included Hindu and Muslim prayers, a Jewish kaddish and a reading from Christian scripture.
As unusual as that might have been, it was the reception afterward that really grabbed people's attention: Mourners were served tasty bits of fungi--truffles and morels, oyster mushrooms and Japanese shiitake.
"I wish he had been there," said Suzanne W.T. Batra, his wife of 39 years. "He would have enjoyed it. They were his labor of love."
It's true. Mushrooms were Lekh Batra's life. He was one of the world's leading experts in mycology, a little-known but vital field of botany where Batra toiled happily as an adviser to the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Beltsville.
Before retiring five years ago, Batra traveled the world, culturing and identifying thousands of previously unknown fungi, including some that kill peaches, cranberries, blueberries and beans. He discovered 38 new species and seven fungal diseases, published four books and penned more than 130 scientific articles.
"He is known worldwide for his work in mycology," said Marie Tousignant, a former colleague who helped Batra with a section on food and agriculture for a 60-volume encyclopedia on life-support systems. "He once translated all of the Latin scientific terms into Japanese. He was truly fascinating."
Batra's interest in fungi was rooted in a most unlikely source: the 1947 partitioning of India, and the Hindu-Muslim strife that wracked his homeland before and after that cataclysmic event.
Pushed from their village by the ethnic violence that eventually would claim all his mother's relatives, Batra and his family were without money or food. To survive, he went into the hills in search of mushrooms to sell. There, Batra realized his talent not only for finding wild fungi but also for identifying which ones could be eaten without harm.
In 1956, he immigrated to the United States as a student, eventually earning a doctorate in botany from Cornell University. He met his future wife while teaching at Swarthmore College; after another teaching stint, this time at the University of Kansas, he came to Washington in 1967 to work for the USDA.
Batra's interests were as diverse as his background: He helped preserve the green space integral to the design of Greenbelt, the country's first planned community, and he eagerly participated in parades and other civic functions, taking special delight in entertaining children. Tousignant recalled the time Batra showed up at the Greenbelt Labor Day parade accompanied by a huge sow and 13 piglets he'd borrowed from the research center. He was wearing a straw hat, jeans and a plaid shirt.
"He was a very serious scholar, but he also had an incredible sense of humor," said Beth Norden, a neighbor for nearly 20 years. Once, when Norden needed a sitter for her 3-month-old, Batra volunteered and put the baby right to sleep with a discourse on botany.
The Batras had two children: a son who is now a doctoral candidate at Penn State, and a daughter who is a medical resident at a New York hospital.
With his retirement in 1994, Batra found a new passion: writing about his Indus Valley boyhood. He hoped his words would help others "experience village life from the viewpoint of a villager who also understands the shattering impact of [India's] partition on ordinary, poor refugees."
Suzanne Batra, an entomology research scientist, said her husband had been eagerly anticipating her retirement, "so we could finish the book and travel to India." When spring comes, she plans to keep that date: She'll be taking his ashes back to India, to the banks of the Ganges. Following Hindu tradition, they will be placed on a leaf and sent down the river, allowing Lekh Raj Batra to return to his roots.