It’s almost midnight on a Sunday. In the window of the brightly-lit Shell are three young women at a countertop, books spread out before them, engrossed in their studies. A trio of lanky men laugh as they stroll out the door, black plastic bags in tow, toward the college campus across the street.
Raj Luthra, 50, watches an Indian game show on the television behind the counter, which sits in the center of the store flanked by cigarettes and lottery tickets. The store closes at midnight, but Luthra, the owner, is in no hurry to lock up. . For 25 years, since 1993, Luthra has seen generations of students pass through his doors, causing the little bell above them to ring. He’s seen three different presidents at the university across the street come and go. He’s seen the Texas stadium and the “PDK woods” come down, and academic buildings and housing developments go up.
From its spot on an otherwise isolated Northgate Drive, the PDK might look like any other Shell gas station. But it will only take a passerby moments to notice the carefully curated items on his shelves: Pens and notebooks, from college-ruled spirals to Blue Books used to take exams, off-brand toothpaste and dishwasher soap, $1.39 boxes of Kraft mac ’n cheese, $0.49 Ramen noodles, $4.39 bottles of Gallo Family wine. Most of the refrigeration cases are dedicated to six packs of Shiner Bock or Guiness, or cases of Round Rock and Natural Light, interrupted by offerings of milk, Starbucks drinks and juice.
This lone outpost of alcohol, snack food and toiletries is an oasis for the students, yet over the years, its proprietor, Raj, has become just as significant to them.
One senior at the University of Dallas likes to tell the story of how she witnessed Luthra reopen the store just after midnight to give a student a single cigarette the day before Lent began. Another senior, Sara Coello, was coming back late from the campus at nearly 1 a.m. when Luthra opened the doors so she could get Cheetos for a sick classmate.
Raj seems to know everything about the students, and even the school: who is getting engaged, who is having what party and where, what parcel of land the university is selling and to whom. He invites information and shares it easily- except when it comes to himself.
Born and raised in the Punjab province of India, Luthra came to the United States when he was 15, in 1982. He came straight to the DFW area, working in convenience stores and eventually earning a Bachelor’s of Business Administration at UT Arlington.
As he talks about himself, Luthra is closed off. He keeps his hands in front of his mouth and gazes out the window. This is not a subject he seems to enjoy discussing. For instance, in 1988 he stated casually he went back to India for four months.
“Why only for four months?”
“My grandmother was not doing well. She got sick and she died. Then I got married and came back,” Luthra said, glossing over what, for many, might be a defining life event.
After marrying, he and his wife, Vandna lived in Fort Worth, where Luthra worked at various gas stations, before buying the PDK in 1993.
“I chose this because it was a nice, safe area,” Luthra said. Still, he knew ahead of time that it was near to the university. The store and its unique merchandising, geared toward students, had already existed before Luthra came. However, he made some updates. For instance, he started selling alcohol in 2008, and started selling Blue Books, or exam booklets, to students after hearing about how they were too expensive at the on campus bookstore. Now both Luthra and the bookstore sell them for $0.49.
He and his wife have two teenage children, who, as we spoke on a Thursday afternoon, were behind the counter of the gas station with their mother, eating a pizza and watching the television.
He shows me a picture on his phone of a photo in The University News of a baby girl from an article about the birth of his daughter Megan. He can’t find the physical paper, which he claims he has kept somewhere, but he estimates the article was from October of 2000.
As the conversation moves toward the present, Luthra become more animated. He likes to speak in detail about the history of the university. He brings up old scandals, and stories about old students. His eyes light up as he talks about the ill-fated plan for the pharmacy school, or how a past president tried to increase enrollment in the graduate school by offering three credits for free. The result of this decision, Luthra will tell you sagely, was for the students to graduate more quickly while paying less money, a bad move for the school.
For current students like senior Ellen Rogers, Luthra and his store have defined her UD experience. She lives in an apartment right behind the store, a location she describes as “the center of things” due to the frequent foot traffic to and from campus.
Rogers describes her proximity to the store as both blessing and a curse, for the same reason that she can go get a snack whenever she feels like it. But Luthra’s impact for her extends beyond the convenience of nearby food in an area where there is no other grocery store or restaurant accessible to those without a car.
“He’s just someone that you tell things in your life to,” Rogers said. “I think a lot of people are comfortable sharing just sort of what’s going on in their life. I know every time I go in there I say, ‘How’s your day, what’s going on, what’s the scoop?’ He knows what’s going on and he cares about people’s lives.”
This past winter during cold season, for instance, Luthra gave away pieces of ginger root to students complaining of sore throats with the advice to eat it raw with a bit of honey for an instant cure.
Teresa Kuehler, a ‘97 alumna, and parent to three current students, attended UD when Luthra first took over at the PDK in the second semester of her freshman year.
“This was way before Raj sold alcohol so there was no reason to go in except for cigarettes or ephedrine or the frozen burritos,” Kuehler said.
She did not get to know Luthra personally very well as a student, stating that she thought of him simply as “the gas station guy,” though she learned by her junior or senior year that Luthra “knew everyone and knew what everyone was doing.”
However, when she returned to the PDK a decade later, she was surprised to find he remembered her.
“Raj asked about my husband by name,” Kuehler said. “After having thousands of people coming through that store, to remember me after all those years was astonishing,”
After this Kuehler made a point to say hello to Luthra every time she went back to the store, though she admittedly had only a few opportunities.
Keuhler said that by the time her eldest daughter Eva enrolled at UD in the fall of 2014, Luthra felt like an old family friend.
“I only really remember, from my time at UD, that he was an incredibly hard worker and very observant,” Kuehler reflected. “But now, as a parent, I realize how great it has been for the UD community to have Raj and his family running that store. It’s so nice to have his permanence and dependability.”
This article has been edited from its print version to more accurately reflect a story about Raj which was misattributed to senior Maria D’Anselmi.