An engineer by training and brimming with ideas, Naseem Ansari arrived in the United States in 1956 seeking the American dream. By the time he died on Jan. 13, he’d found it.
The Pakistani immigrant studied and worked in the U.S., drilled oil wells in Texas and mined vermiculite in Montana. He owned and operated an abrasives business in Brooklyn Center, sent two children to college and lived to help his son, Omar Ansari, build Surly Brewing, one of the Twin Cities’ craft-beer success stories.
“The first generation is the sacrifice generation, and you struggle like crazy to make it and to give your kids a better life,” said Dorit Ansari, his wife, a native of Germany. “When your kids have a better life and are successful like Omar with the brewery, you’re very happy.”
Born in India, Naseem Ansari was the youngest of eight children.
After partition in 1947, most Muslims in the Indian subcontinent moved to what are now Bangladesh or Pakistan, and Naseem’s family was forced to move from Punjab to near Lahore in Pakistan.
He studied engineering in Pakistan and came to the United States in his early 20s, said his son.
“America, at that time, was kind of seen as the streets are paved with gold,” Omar Ansari said. “He wanted to make his own path.”
In 1958, the elder Ansari met a young German woman in Chicago. She was traveling the U.S., trying to improve her English.
Naseem was rude at first, Dorit said, but over many objections the two fell in love and married.
“A white, German, young girl, marrying someone from Pakistan? Everyone said it’s never going to work, you’re going to get a divorce,” Dorit Ansari said. “It lasted for 56 years.”
The story goes that Naseem had $300 in his pocket when he came from Pakistan to attend Ohio State University, but his wife doubts the amount.
“He had not very much, I can tell you,” she said. “I certainly had $300. It’s about all I had. We were poor.”
In 1965, the young family moved to the Twin Cities so Naseem could help a friend with his abrasives business. Over time the Ansaris bought the company and renamed it Ansari Abrasives. In the 1970s the firm employed as many as 80 people. It made industrial abrasives and sold them to manufacturers.
Manufacturers were declining, however, and Naseem suffered a heart attack in 1976 that led to a slow recovery.
The business shrank, went through bankruptcy and evolved under Dorit into a national distributor of abrasives instead of a producer of them. Naseem dabbled in real estate, mining and other ventures.
“He had a lot of ideas and certainly looked at things in his own way, for good and for bad,” Omar said.
By the time Omar graduated from Macalester College and went to work for his parents, the business had about 10 employees. Omar told his parents he wanted to start a brewery. Surly’s first beers were brewed in 2006 and 2007 in Brooklyn Center.
The brewery has grown quickly and recently opened a much larger brewery and taproom in Minneapolis.
Not only does the son credit his father for the example he set as an entrepreneur, but he considers Surly to be a continuation of his parents’ work.
“I’ve always called Surly a second-generation family business,” Omar said. “What they built turned into what we have now.”
Naseem Ansari died Jan. 13 of lung complications related to heart disease. He was 82. He is survived by his wife Dorit, his son Omar, daughter Rebecca, and five grandsons.
A celebration of his life will be held Jan. 31 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Surly Brewing complex, 520 Malcolm Av. SE., Minneapolis.