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Louisiana's Better Half

July 1, 2008

Elizabeth Mullener

This article was originally printed in the Jan. 13, 2008, issue of The Times-Picayune.

 

Her husband, Bobby, may be running the state, but Supriya Jindal brings her own record of accomplishment to the governor’s mansion.

Louisiana's Better HalfThis was her third child, so Supriya Jindal (E ’93, B ’96) figured she knew what she was doing when it came to having a baby.

But this one was tricky. Twice she had gone to the hospital reporting labor pains and twice she had been sent home. A few days later, she went for a regularly scheduled doctor’s visit, certain she was ready to deliver. Soon, she was told, but not quite yet.

That night, she woke up with a pain. She knew all about contractions—the first birth had taken 36 hours of labor, the second took 24—but this didn’t feel like a contraction, she says. Nevertheless, she asked her husband to phone the hospital. The nurse on call told him to bring her in.

As she prepared to leave the house, she suddenly recognized the strange pain.

“This baby is coming now!” Jindal shouted to her husband. And she was right. The delivery took place au naturel on the bathroom floor in the couple’s Kenner, La., home. The midwife was Bobby Jindal, who in January became Louisiana’s 61st governor.

“Bobby called my dad (to come care for the two sleeping children),” Jindal says. “He lives six miles away from us and he hopped in his car in his pajamas. In the time it took him to drive over, the baby was born.”

With the nurse on the phone coaching him, Bobby did what had to be done. Jindal did likewise, although she had eagerly taken the epidural route for her other two deliveries.

When it was all over, she asked her husband just three questions, she says.

“Boy or girl?”

Boy.

“Ten fingers and toes?”

Yes.

“Is he breathing?”

Her husband gave her a look.

“The baby is screaming his head off, waking up the entire neighborhood,” Bobby said. “What do you mean is he breathing?”

The experience was tense and stressful and anxiety-producing, not to mention fivestar dramatic. But Supriya Jindal kept her cool throughout.

“She was screaming in pain but she wasn’t angry,” Bobby says. “She never got hysterical, never cursed. She maintained her composure.”

The quality of composure seems to reside at the core of Jindal. She is a refined woman, poised and dignified, polished and positive, serene and smart. She is an attentive listener and a spirited conversation partner—chatty, amusing, game, eager to follow a lead. But she also is reserved and a little reticent, with a touch of caution about her. Calm under pressure would seem just about right.

The husband-to-the-rescue story made Bobby Jindal, then Louisiana’s 1st District U.S. representative, more of a media darling than any political act ever has. But at home, the experience had a more lasting impact. It had put the couple to the test—and they had aced it.

“It was the most amazing moment of our 10 years of marriage when I was able to hand her our son,” Bobby says. “We had to have confidence and trust in each other. It was a miraculous moment.”

Jindal agrees.

“After it was over, it brought our connection with each other closer,” she says. “It makes you more in love.”

Born in New Delhi, India, because her parents were visiting their families and stayed a little too long, Jindal landed when she was only a few days old in Metairie, La., where her parents had been living for some years. Between Baton Rouge and the suburbs of New Orleans, she has spent nearly all her life in Louisiana.

The oldest of three children and daughter of a stay-at-home mom and an engineer dad, Jindal was a star student at Grace King High School, where she was known for being both lively and bookish.

“We were really boring—all student-government type kids,” says Brenda Bordelon, a close high school pal. “I was on the school paper; she was on the yearbook staff. Our idea of a good time was to hang out at Baskin and Robbins.”

Supriya Jindal

Following in her father's
footsteps, Jindal received
a degree in chemical
engineering at Tulane,
and then went on to get
a master's in business
administration.


With a 4.3 average, Jindal was clearly serious and ambitious. And she appeared to be self-possessed as well.

“She was friendly and outgoing but not over-the-top bubbly,” Bordelon says. “She had a small group of friends. Being a good, loyal friend was important to Supriya. She didn’t need to impress everybody who walked by.”

Even in high school, Jindal was a devotee of conservative politics. When the 1988 Republican convention came to New Orleans, she worked on the welcoming committee as a volunteer.

“I’ve always been a Republican,” she says. “My parents, too.”

When it came time for college, Jindal chose Tulane University, where she lived on campus and studied chemical engineering, as her father had done. After earning a bachelor’s degree, she went on to get a master’s in business administration at Tulane and most of a Ph.D. at Louisiana State University, where she has completed everything but her dissertation in marketing.

Vijay John, a professor in Tulane’s engineering school, remembers Jindal as an accomplished young woman with attractive social skills and a rigorous mind.

“She was a model student,” he says. “Diligent, worked hard, easy to get along with. She asked very intelligent questions.

“She was energetic in a quiet way. Not at all showy. Very dignified and polite. Maybe a little on the quiet side.”

Her career path is impressive but traditional, given her education. She worked first for Monsanto Chemicals, a St. Louis company that produces the herbicide Round-Up, among other things, at its plant in Luling, to which she commuted from an apartment in Uptown New Orleans.

In 1997, Jindal moved to Baton Rouge to take a job at Albemarle Corp., another chemical outfit, which turns out products that go into detergents, cosmetics and shampoos as well as flame retardants used in computer housings and televisions to prevent them from igniting. She held a variety of positions there, from research and development to something called competitive intelligence, which has a James Bondian sound about it. She laughs at the suggestion.

“It’s a matter of better understanding our competitors so that we can better assess what our customers are looking for and provide a better value package to the marketplace,” she says.

Her final position at Albemarle was as a product manager, about four rungs down from the top, management-wise. She was 29 when she took the assignment.

“She was very reserved, very thoughtful, respectful of her co-workers and their input,” says John Prindle, a colleague at Albemarle. “She treated people with a lot of respect.”

With the birth of her third child—and later, the prospect of being married to the Louisiana governor—Jindal put her career on hold. She is unclear about when she will resume it.

“But it is not possible for me to imagine I would never work again,” she says.



LITTLE DID THEY KNOW


Tall and slim at 35, with a graceful carriage and an elegant sense of style, Jindal has dark eyes and a cascade of well-behaved hair.

One of her classmates remembers her striking good looks from her freshman year at Baton Rouge High School, where she had moved when her father was temporarily reassigned there by Freeport-McMoRan.

“I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen, “says Bobby, who was a year ahead of her. “I only wish I could say she had been my high school sweetheart. But she had other plans.”

Oblivious of his crush, Jindal was out of touch with him for years after that—she moved back to New Orleans, he went East for college. But she kept track of him through mutual friends and through the media, and she took note of a Times-Picayune profile of him when he was appointed at age 24 to run Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals.

In that profile, he bemoaned his bachelor state and described what he wanted in a mate.

“I’m looking for someone to challenge me— intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. Someone who will keep me honest. Someone who won’t merely accede to whatever I say. Someone who will hold me accountable,” he said in 1996.

“I chuckled when I read that,” she says.

On their first date, Bobby invited her to a ball put on by his boss, Gov. Mike Foster. On their second date, they had dinner at Bella Luna in the French Quarter and went on a riverboat cruise. The next day, they took a ride up River Road.

“Bobby gave me a tour of the plantations along the river and I gave him a tour of the chemical plants,” she says.

Within a few months, they were engaged and then married in 1997 at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baton Rouge. Their wedding reception was at the governor’s mansion.

“Little did we know,” she says, raising her eyebrows.

Although Bobby had converted from Hinduism to Catholicism as a young man, Jindal took a while longer. It was several years after her marriage that she finally joined the Catholic Church. Her parents were accepting of her decision, she says. And she thinks she would have arrived at the same place with or without the influence of her husband.

“It was more of a spiritual journey than it was an intellectual journey,” she says. “I read a lot about religion from the standpoint of converts and why they chose to convert and what led them to do so. That was the path I took— just understanding why people choose Catholicism.

“You can be born into a faith. But when you choose to switch to something, you try to truly understand it.”

A NEW ORLEANS GIRL


With a house in Kenner, two cars and three children—Selia, 6; Shaan, 3; and Slade, 1— Jindal says she has been living the life of a classic suburban working mom.

The Jindals

The Jindals with sons Shaan and Slade.


Balance has been a big issue for her, managing family and career, the demands of being a political wife and the burdens of a frequently out-of-town husband. Through it all, she says, she has managed to take her kids to the zoo, pick strawberries in Ponchatoula, La., show up on the campaign trail when her husband was unavailable and carve out some quiet time for herself.

Bobby says she does it all without flinching.

“In many ways, I’m a tough guy to be married to,” he says. “I travel, I work long hours, unpredictable hours. An unfair share of family obligations falls on her shoulders. The only reason I can do what I do is that I married this incredible woman who doesn’t complain about it, doesn’t resent it.

“You’re talking about an accomplished career woman. She could have said, ‘Sorry, but I didn’t sign up for this.’ Instead, she’s done it joyfully.”

Bobby, meanwhile, has done his share of diaper-changing and has made sure, when he’s home, that he is as faithful as possible to certain rituals: He takes the children to school in the morning; he puts them to bed at night, reads them stories and leads them through their prayers; he shows up for dance recitals and school plays.

The two of them keep in contact via frequent, short cell-phone conversations throughout the day. They say they confide freely in each other and have trouble keeping secrets. And, Bobby says, they have a lot in common in terms of preferences, passions and their child-centered family values.

But not everything, he is quick to add.

She likes romantic comedies; he likes “Law and Order.” She has a taste for fine food; he has a taste for Taco Bell. She has a strong need for social contact; he’s content to take the kids to the park. She goes for spreadsheets and databases; he goes for get-it-done. She has a sense of fashion; he’d wear the same suit every day if she’d let him. She’s sequential; he compartmentalizes. She’s sentimental; he needs a reminder their anniversary is coming up. She plays racquetball; he plays tennis.

In her down-time, Jindal says, she indulges her own preferences. She likes to read— legal thrillers for entertainment and the Wall Street Journal for information. She likes Frank Sinatra and classic rock. She enjoys the theater and sometimes makes it to the “Beethoven and Blue Jeans” concerts put on by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

Her all-time favorite movies are anything with Cary Grant, although lately it’s been more like “Ratatouille.” She has fun cooking when she can be ambitious about it, which isn’t often. In between, she watches the “Iron Chef,” Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray.

For celebrations, she likes dinner at Mr. B’s. On family nights, she heads for Dot’s Diner.

She tries to do most of her fashion shopping on Magazine Street or Metairie Road to support local vendors. She has traveled extensively, from Asia to Europe, all across the United States and all through Louisiana, including a homey adventure with her husband, tracing the scenic coastline of the state.

With parents and in-laws, aunts and uncles and at least a dozen cousins nearby, much of Jindal’s social life involves family. Her mother, Shakun Jolly, is intuitive and nurturing, Bobby says, good at helping her daughter deal with her children. But in terms of her analytical style and her engineer’s take on the world, he says, his wife more resembles her father, Jay Jolly, a vice president at Crescent Technology, a consulting company spun off from Freeport-McMoRan.

“Supriya and her dad, you get the sense they talk the same language,” Bobby says. “They are similar in temperament, personality. There’s a natural affinity there.”

Although she has visited India several times—including once with Bobby, when he was sent as a congressman on a trade mission— she says she doesn’t feel any particular attachment to the country of her ancestors or any particular sense of comfort when she’s there. Nor does she follow the news from India with any particular regularity.

“I think it’s interesting. I enjoy traveling and experiencing different things, different cultures. But it’s not a direct connection, “ she says.

“She’s a New Orleans girl,” Bobby says. At play with the children or in prayer with her husband before he addresses a special session of the Louisiana Legislature, Jindal embraces the very different roles of being a political wife and mom. “I think that defines her more.”

But Jindal does say that being the child of immigrants inspires her admiration for their fortitude and determination.

“I’m sure there were a lot of struggles,” she says. “Our parents went through a great deal— leaving their families, relocating, not knowing anyone, starting from scratch. We look at them as our heroes for accomplishing that.”



A NEED TO KNOW


If the Jindals seem to be leading charmed lives, they haven’t always. When their second child was born three years ago with a hole in his heart, their lives, for a time, were terrifying.

The problem was discovered when Shaan was only a few days old, at a regular checkup when the pediatrician heard something suspicious through the stethoscope. Ventricular septal defect, it is called.

For weeks and weeks, they tried everything the medical profession could offer to get the hole to close without operating. When every attempt failed, they took the child—then 3 months old—to Boston Children’s Hospital for open-heart surgery.

“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Jindal says, “was hold that little baby and pass him to the anesthesiologist for surgery.”

In the frantic weeks before that, the Jindals came to terms with the inevitable. The situation shook them both profoundly but their distinctive responses to the challenge, Bobby says, illuminate the differences in their personality styles.

From the first moment, Jindal showed a ferocious need to know.

“The doctor had cautioned us not to believe everything you read on the Internet,” Bobby says. “But of course, Supriya immediately found all these postings and all these scary horror stories.”

Then she went into phase two—with a vengeance.

“She researched the procedure itself—and all the alternatives,” he says. “She would ask the doctor all sorts of technical questions: What about this? I’ve heard about that new treatment. She was reading a lot, she kept a notebook. She was so organized. She was going to educate herself in every detail and every nuance and she was going to leave no stone unturned.

“At one point, the doctor turned to me and said, ‘Just tell me you’re not an engineer. I don’t think I could take two of you.’”

Bobby, meanwhile, was pursuing his own course.

“I had a different response, “ he says. “I went out and investigated the doctors. I was going to find the best possible doctor to be found. I wasn’t going to second-guess their judgment. I figured I didn’t go to med school—they know a lot more about it than I do.”

Although his instincts took him down a different path, he was nevertheless entirely sympathetic to his wife’s approach.

“Given her personality, it was hard for her not to have control over her child,” Bobby says. “This is life or death—it’s hard to be in a passive observer role.

“You want to defend your child. You feel so helpless when he’s in someone else’s hands. She wanted some input in the process. She needed to feel she had some say.

“It was also probably a coping mechanism— a way to stay busy, stay involved, have some control over this awful thing that’s happening. It can give you a sense of comfort.”

Today, Shaan is a frisky 3-year-old, but just as it would two years later, when their baby was born on the bathroom floor, the episode brought the Jindals closer.

“When you go through such a challenging experience,” Bobby says, “it can either exacerbate the underlying tensions and weaknesses or it can strengthen the relationship. For us, it strengthened it. We have incredible family and friends, but you’re really dependent on each other. There’s only one other person who knows what you’re going through.”

GETTING IT RIGHT


Supriya Jindal is the second youngest wife of a sitting governor in the United States, edged out by six months by Missouri’s Melanie Blunt. As such, she faces the kind of issues that the first ladies of most states do not: the challenge of raising three small children in the governor’s mansion.

For the most part, she thinks, she will play the kind of dual role she has played for years in Kenner, but writ a little larger. Along with public appearances and hosting responsibilities, she would like to focus whatever spotlight is available to her on issues of children’s health. At the same time, though, she will still have diaper duty, she will still have to get the kids ready for school every day, she will still have to supervise homework and broker sibling spats.

She understands there will be some costs to her personal life, particularly to her privacy. But she also understands the enormous opportunity, given this crucial point in Louisiana’s history, in the aftermath of Rita and Katrina.

“I always tell Bobby that we have to get this right,” she says. “Our kids are only going to be young once. When they grow up, if there aren’t opportunities for them here in Louisiana, they’re going to leave.

“We see our friends moving out of state— bright and talented people—and we don’t like seeing it.”

© 2008 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Times-Picayune

Tulanian
Spring 2008

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