Arriving in Minnesota from her native India at the age of 24, newly married Srimati Neenaben Gada disembarked from the plane to find her new home state nothing short of bracing. It was 32 degrees on May 1, 1967, and Gada, woefully underdressed in an Indian sari and sleeveless blouse, spent her first moments in Minneapolis "freezing," she wrote later.

She warmed to the state — and bought a coat — and went on to become a singular force for Indian immigrants in Minnesota, founding a school of Indian language and culture, steering the India portion of the long-running Festival of Nations and proudly sharing the customs of India with anyone curious to know them.

Gada, of Minnetrista, died last month. She was 81.

Born in Kutch, Gujarat, Gada graduated from Wilson College in Mumbai with a bachelors degree in sociology and political science. She met her husband, Ram Gada, through an arranged marriage. He had already immigrated to the United States to earn a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Dakota when he returned to India to find a bride. They both felt the other was a good choice, and weeks after meeting they flew to Minnesota as husband and wife.

Known to friends and family as Neena, Gada wrote of her early life in 1960s Minnesota that it was nothing like the Perry Mason books she read as a student in Mumbai. There were other surprises: the grocery store didn't carry Indian food, restaurants didn't serve vegetarian dishes, and bystanders asked Neena about the red mark on her forehead or her sari. "I wanted to raise awareness about India's culture, so I provided all the information they sought," she wrote in a short memoir.

They found a community of Indian couples at the University of Minnesota, and soon Neena was catching Indian movies on campus, going to the U's Ames Library of South Asia or visiting a woman who taught Hindi in the Linguistics Department. After buying their first house in New Brighton and having two children, Neena's thoughts turned to her kids.

"I had to create a balanced environment where my children could experience Indian culture and learn languages as well," she wrote.

With four other women, she founded the School of India for Languages and Culture in 1979, operating out of the Commonwealth Community Center at the University of Minnesota. The school held three hours of class every Sunday, teaching all things India, from languages to history, geography to dance. Dignitaries like the Indian ambassador visited the school. Teachers from SILC ventured out to public schools and libraries to give talks on Indian culture. The school continues today as a secular nonprofit.

"It's a legacy that's still running strong," said her daughter, Lisa Gada Norton. Wrapping kids up in a sari or using henna ink on their hands, Gada showed the children pieces of Indian culture that didn't exist in Minnesota. "It gave me an identity," said Gada Norton.

"For her, the school was her passion," said Preeti Mathur, a friend of Gada's and author of the book "From Seven Rivers to Ten Thousand Lakes: Minnesota's Indian American Community." "She would just come to life when you would mention it."

Gada's volunteer duties expanded every year to include the India portion of the Festival of Nations, a long-running St. Paul event that shuttered last year. Gada also served with the India Association of Minnesota and was in charge of exhibits for the first India Day celebration in 1983, a precursor to today's India Fest held annually at the state Capitol. With her husband, Gada was also a narrator for the India Oral History Project at the Minnesota Historical Society. She became a U.S. citizen in 1992.

"I am grateful to Neena for her love and I wish her peace and bliss in her next journey," Ram Gada wrote in a note to friends and family last month. "We had an amazing life with our two children, four grandchildren and many friends near and far. From the moment she walked through the door at our first meeting, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Neena's beauty and radiance lit up the room and her intelligence won me over."

Her dream was to create an Indian community in Minnesota so that their children "would know our wonderful homeland," he wrote.

In her own letter to friends written several years ago, Neena Gada reflected on her life. "I call the Indians living here during the 1960s as the pioneers," she wrote. "It took many years of hard work and effort against all odds to get where we are today. Our dreams have come true (we did it!)."

Beside her husband and daughter, Gada's survivors include her son, Ketan Gada, and four grandchildren. Services have been held.