Photographed above: Drs. Chitrachedu and Vimala Naganna
Strengthening The Community With Generosity and Love
by Kim Byrnes
Drs. Chitrachedu and Vimala Naganna, originally from India, found their way to Carroll County in the mid-1970s. They have established themselves here as a family with kids and grandkids, as doctors, as business owners, as philanthropists. They have become known for their generosity, commitment to family and dedication to important causes. But if we dig a little deeper, pushing the curtains back just a bit, it becomes clear that they are much more — they are trailblazers.
This dynamic duo has never felt compelled to stay inside the boundaries. He was supposed to be a farmer but pushed for an education; they set aside tradition to marry for love; they settled in a small town that was not known for welcoming diversity; they spearheaded the introduction of cutting-edge medical services to Carroll County residents; and they have spent millions of dollars to support local education, medicine, culture, and families.
This year, “Chitra” and Vimala Naganna are being recognized as Carroll Magazine’s Persons of the Year for their decades of commitment to the health and well-being of Carroll County residents — and for their recent $1 million gift to the Boys and Girls Club of Westminster.
From India to Carroll
Chitra Naganna grew up in a poor farming family in a small village in India. It was expected he would be a farmer, but at a young age his family and teachers recognized that he was meant for more. He excelled academically, and his family sacrificed to make sure the boy was able to continue his education. He said engineering was a popular career choice at that time, but he chose to go into medicine, specifically cardiology, because his father died of heart disease when Chitra was only 6 years old. “My mother said, ‘Become a cardiologist to help the sick,’” he recalled.
Vimala also grew up in India, but her upbringing was slightly different. Her father was the dean of a college and they lived in a more urban area. It was expected that she would be well educated.
The two met in medical school, got married and moved to New York to do their residencies. While in New York they started a family — a son, Shankar, and two daughters, Latha and Anitha. In 1975, work with Johns Hopkins brought them to Maryland, and they chose to settle in Westminster. They laughed, recalling that Westminster had one traffic light when they started their lives here.
“I wanted to raise my family in a small town. Family is very important to us,” Chitra said. In addition to being a good place to raise a family, the hospital — Carroll County General Hospital at the time — did not have a cardiologist on staff, which meant this was a place where he and his wife could grow professionally. He worked at Carroll’s hospital, and they started a medical practice in Westminster. Vimala worked as a family physician at their practice up until her retirement several years ago.
Not only was Chitra the first cardiologist treating patients at the hospital, he also personally paid for necessary medical equipment that the hospital couldn’t afford, and he implemented a pacemaker program so patients didn’t have to travel to Baltimore for those services. In the late 1980s the Nagannas made their first major philanthropic gift: a donation to the hospital that would help bring the critical-care wing to fruition.
Leslie Simmons, former president of Carroll Hospital Center and now chief operating officer and executive vice president of LifeBridge Health, said that Chitra’s work at the hospital was hugely important to the community. In addition to developing new programs at the hospital and bringing in cutting-edge technologies, he also served as chief of medicine for many years.
“They were very supportive of a lot of the hospital’s early programming,” Simmons said. “They made a big difference in raising the quality of the care of the community. Making sure the hospital embraced important programs to support the needs of patients in the community was always very important to them.”
Investing in people
Helping others is a mindset for the Nagannas, and giving away money is only one aspect of their philanthropy.
“Our parents were philanthropists; we mirror them. When I was in high school I donated food, books, clothes and candles to friends, even though we weren’t wealthy,” Chitra said. “My father gave money and land to the poor, and never asked for it back. [Vimala’s] father donated land and supported projects like a wedding hall and student housing.”Recently, the Nagannas made a $1 million gift to the Boys and Girls Club of Westminster. Debbie Leazer, development director at the Boys and Girls Club, said that a portion of the money is earmarked for a tech center that includes a computer lab and a learning lab to help students with homework and special projects. The rest of the donation will go towards the Naganna Sports Complex and sports programming.
“The Nagannas are instrumental in supporting anything that brings more value and improved health to the community,” Leazer said. “They have a real sense of compassion for the youth in our community, and that is what originally brought them to us. They are all about making sure the children are taken care of — they are investing in the future.”
In addition to donating money, Vimala said she is excited to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club. Leazer said that before COVID shut everything down, Vimala was planning to drive some programming around helping young women with the challenges that come with adolescence.
“I want to help the kids who need it most, and then help their families,” Vimala said. “I’ve always had an interest in helping women and supporting women’s initiatives.”
Chitra said that helping youths find success in education is important, because educated citizens have a better chance of getting out of poverty. He said that if it weren’t for his family making sure he could get an education and for scholarships that helped him get through medical school, he would not have become a cardiologist, and likely not had the means to help so many others.
“I don’t want any child left behind in the world,” Chitra said. “My passion is to help people help themselves. We are investing in good citizens, and intend to keep donating.”
“Without education, poverty will increase, and we want to stop that cycle,” Vimala said.
“The biggest drive is that they understand that education creates a lot of opportunity and helps people do better for themselves,” their daughter Latha said, “and that every person deserves to maintain their dignity by having the basics of food, housing and education.”
Steve Wantz, Carroll Community College’s executive director of institutional advancement and the College Foundation, said the Naganna family started an endowed scholarship fund in 2007 for students in the nursing and physical therapy assistant programs.
“For Dr. Chitrachedu and Dr. Vimala Naganna, it is not about the financial support, it is about the students and impacting their lives to make for a more brilliant future,” Wantz said. “It speaks volumes to their generous hearts. They truly care that our students’ dreams will become realities, and they ask for very little recognition in return.”
Julia Jasken, president of McDaniel College, said that the Nagannas are driven by their strong belief in the importance of education and access to education. Chitra has served as a member of McDaniel’s board of trustees since 2007, helping to steer McDaniel’s strategic direction.
“Through the establishment of the Drs. Chitrachedu and Vimala Naganna Scholarship Fund, they support students pursuing careers in science, medical fields, and teaching,” Jasken said. “Most recently, their leadership gift helped fund the $11 million renovation of the Roj Student Center and led to the naming of the Naganna Forum.”
The Nagannas are also founding members of a spiritual and cultural gem in Carroll County, and many don’t even know it’s here. The Greater Baltimore Temple is nestled just off Route 140 in Finksburg.
In the early 1990s, the Nagannas were part of a small group of people interested in building a temple in the greater Baltimore area. There are many different religions in Indian culture, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam. Chitra wanted to open a temple that welcomed adherents of all Indian religions under one roof. He said it was important to him that they welcome all ethnicities. He also envisioned a place of cultural learning and understanding.
“The temple exists to promote our heritage, culture and our values to the younger generation and the rest of the world,” said Dr. Satyam Chary, president of the Greater Baltimore Temple.
Chary, also a founding member of the temple, said that the facility would not have materialized if not for the Nagannas’ financial contributions and dedication. According to Chary, the Nagannas took responsibility for finding a location, securing the loan when no one else was willing to do it, and for making significant financial contributions towards construction.
The 3,000-square-foot temple hall and a 4,800-square-foot community center opened in 1998.
“[Chitra] represents values of our heritage and culture, and he worked hard in terms of improving interfaith relations among Hindus and Christians in Carroll County,” Chary said.
The Nagannas have stayed involved in the temple over the years as members but also as leaders. Chitra is chair of the board of governors and they have donated almost half a million dollars towards an upcoming expansion project. Vimala said she enjoys volunteering at the temple.
“[Chitra and Vimala] are hard-working, fun-loving and very dedicated people to their family and the society they are living in,” Chary said.
Family and inspiration
Life was a whirlwind for Chitra and Vimala in the mid-1970. They settled in Westminster with their three small children, started working at the hospital and opened their own medical practice. Shankar, Latha and Anita would excel in academics and sports at Westminster High School and go out into the world in pursuit of higher education and fulfilling lives. Eventually, each one returned to the area — and Vimala insists they returned without pressure from Mom and Dad.
Chitra and Vimala’s legacy is multi-layered. They have helped set local youths up for success by funding their education and development. And they have raised children who are now taking the reins in providing medical care to our community and raising their own children here.
Shankar is a doctor and lives in Carroll County with his wife, Karen, and three children, Leila, Kiran and Rina. After working at Carroll Hospital Center for years, playing an integral role in the department of medicine, Shankar joined his parents’ practice and continues to focus on outpatient medicine.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Latha became a cardiologist. She spent many years as the chief of cardiology and director of cardiovascular services at Carroll Hospital and now focuses on outpatient medicine at the family practice. She lives in Baltimore County with her husband, Aaron Fray, and their two young daughters, Riya and Anisa.
The youngest of the brood, Anitha, earned her doctorate in physical therapy and eventually returned to Westminster to settle down and raise a family, and open her own physical therapy practice. She is married to Venkat Rangarajan and they have two kids, Krishnan and Asha. Anitha said she returned to Westminster because she wanted to start her practice in a familiar area and be closer to family.
“I’m surprised that they all landed back in Carroll County,” Vimala said. “Our friends say how lucky we are to have all the kids close to us. We are blessed — as long as the kids aren’t fighting among themselves.”
All three of the Naganna kids remember trips to India over the years, where they would see a level of poverty that simply doesn’t exist in this part of the world. During these visits, they jumped in to help where they could at the clinic their parents funded. Shankar said he remembered seeing people lined up around the block to get medical care. “They had no resources, a lot of them couldn’t read, they didn’t have transportation so they couldn’t get to other places, there was no primary health care — that is what we were offering.”
Anitha said that her parent’s philanthropic activity was just a part of life, and while she knows as an adult that it’s a big deal, a big deal wasn’t made of it in her house when she was growing up.
“They care about people and their community, they grew up in small towns in India with little for themselves … they wanted to contribute to making other people’s lives a little bit better, healthier, in any way possible,” Anitha said.
Chitra and Vimala have worked hard to build a life here, to raise a family of successful kids and grandkids, to strategically spend money to benefit the broader community. But those that work hard often play hard, too, and that is certainly true in this case.
Chitra proudly shares that he won many awards during his schooling, but not only in academics and athletics, he was also talented in the arts. He said he won awards for his roles in drama productions. Latha added that her father loves to dance.
While Vimala was quite the athlete in her younger years — according to Latha she was an amazing tennis player and in India was a champion in badminton, running and tennikoit (a game that resembles volleyball, but played with a thrown ring) — today she fills her time with grandchildren and gardening.
Both Chitra and Vimala excitedly talk about their extensive travel. Chitra said that one of their biggest achievements is visiting 136 countries (and counting). Favorite destinations include Antarctica, Iceland, New Zealand and Southern Spain. They were always avid skiers and didn’t shy away from the thrills of activities like paragliding.
Vimala said that her husband is proudest of the work they have done in bettering the village that he grew up in: providing health care and drinkable water and educational resources for a whole community. For her, pride rests solidly in the family she has raised.
“Raising the kids has been my happiness,” Vimala said. “Their happiness is my happiness.”
While the Nagannas have set up trusts that will continue to benefit the community when they are gone, Chitra said that he wants other people to take their lead and give. He added that everyone has something to give, even if it’s not a financial gift. He said donating time, energy and expertise is also invaluable.
“I’m an example,” Chitra said. “I want everyone in society who can afford to participate in important programs like this to give. There should be more people working to make a difference.”
Shankar said that it’s a testament to his parents that all three of their children returned to live and work in the community where their parents built a life, and a legacy of impacting others. He said that except for their large contributions to the projects in India, that most of their money and giving has been focused right here in Carroll County.
Establishing an Educational Resource
The youngest of five children, Chitrachedu Naganna grew up in a small village called Kotanka in India. He was from a family of farmers and it was expected that he too would be a farmer. But he took a different path that included getting an education, going to medical school and eventually becoming a physician in the United States.
But roots run deep and Chitra said he never forgot where he came from.
Starting around 1979, the Nagannas started to fulfill Chitra’s dream of building much-needed facilities in Kotanka. They spearheaded the construction of a health clinic and funded a doctor and nurse so people in the village could have basic medical needs met.
Dr. Latha Naganna-Fray, Chitra and Vimala Naganna’s oldest daughter, said she remembers visiting the town when she was growing up, and helping around the clinic.
“They were always focused on helping their families in India and making sure they were taken care of. For them that was just something that you do — take care of those around you,” Latha said. “And starting the clinic in India, it was understood and a given that we would help when we went there.”
Dr. Shankar Naganna, Chitra and Vimala’s son, said that he remembers visiting the clinic where people were lined up around the block to see a doctor or nurse. He said it was a poor community where they lacked a lot of amenities.
“They had no resources, a lot of them couldn’t read, there’s no public transportation to take them to another town, there was no primary care,” Shankar said. “That is what we were offering.”
Over the years, the Nagannas have given to their communities in India whenever they saw a need. According to Latha they built indoor bathroom facilities, created filtered water systems, donated farm equipment, funded a library, and undertook dozens of other projects that would help the community flourish.
But the crowning achievement for Chitra is the construction of a high school. For many farmers in rural India, formal schooling might end after the fifth grade. Chitra said that when he finished fifth grade he worked on the family farm for two years before his family could get him to a neighboring village to continue his education. There was no schooling past the fifth grade offered in his community.
His family had to sacrifice to make it possible for Chitra to continue his education, and since then, every cell in his body is driven by a desire to help children access educational opportunities and to aid in their educational success.
“The greatest thing for me, I’m most proud of, is building the high school in my town and giving the best to the kids in that town,” Chitra said.
The school was built 2017, and Latha said they’ve already had a couple of classes graduate. She said that when she visited India as a teenager, no one could speak English, but now they have amazing opportunities to learn languages and a jumping board to continue into higher education. Latha also added that part of the school is built on the land where Chitra’s childhood home stood.
“He relates to the kids who didn’t have it easy, who have had a tougher time, and understands the hurdles they face because he also had to face hurdles,” Latha’s husband, Aaron Fray, said. “He wants to give those kids opportunities.”
“Starting a school there was always his dream,” Latha added.
Over the years, the Nagannas have expanded the health clinic and helped build a temple, a wedding hall and other facilities in Kotanka. He has also created educational scholarships in India and has contributed to the construction of multiple temples.
Chitra said the last time he and Vimala visited India was in 2019 and COVID has made it difficult for them to return.
“My passion is education, and to make good citizens who will make the world safer,” Chitra said. “I want to help children, and their parents who might not have the resources to help their kids be successful.”