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In Memoriam | Summer/Fall 2022

In Memoriam: Dr. Jamshid “Jim” Bakhtiar

Embracing many roles, Dr. Jim Bakhtiar led with grace and skill

UVA had not beaten Virginia Tech in five years when the teams met in Richmond, Virginia, at the 1957 Tobacco Bowl, in front of 22,000 fans and the white-gloved Queen of Tobaccoland.

Dr. Jamshid “Jim” Bakhtiar in his football uniform UVA Special collections

Dr. Jamshid “Jim” Bakhtiar (Col ’58, Med ’63) kicked off deep, pinning the Hokies on their own 1-yard line. Bakhtiar then took his position at linebacker, manning the middle of the defense as the Cavaliers quickly forced a Tech punt.

On UVA’s first offensive play, quarterback Reece Whitley (Educ ’61) handed off to—who else?—Bakhtiar, for the first of his 28 carries at fullback. He scored four touchdowns and kicked two extra points, accounting for a school-record 26 points in a 38-7 UVA win.

Starring at three positions was all in a day’s work for Bakhtiar, who died Jan. 9, the day after he turned 88. In a lean era for UVA football, he was the show.

“For those three years, he gave the struggling Cavaliers an air of respectability,” a Virginian-Pilot reporter wrote in 1982.

Bakhtiar also gave the team a certain princely presence. Widely considered to be handsome, charming, studious and humble, he embodied a 1950s masculine ideal.

“If there was ever a big man on campus, he was the guy,” teammate Nelson Yarbrough (Col ’59) said.

The twist in the Bakhtiar tale was that this All-American archetype was born in Iran and was a man of two cultures who eventually returned to his native country, only to be forced into a daring escape that sounds like the stuff of movies.

A lifelong seeker, Bakhtiar chalked it up as part of his journey: “For life is experience,” he said in a 1982 profile in The Washington Post. “And I tried to learn and experience all I can.”

The son of an American mother and an Iranian father educated in the U.S., Bakhtiar moved from Iran to Washington, D.C., with his mother and six  siblings at age 12 after his parents divorced.

Sports became his way of fitting in.

The Cavaliers did not have a winning season during Bakhtiar’s career, but he became one of the top players in the nation, leading the ACC in rushing in 1956 and earning All-American honors in 1957.

“The Persian Prince,” as Bakhtiar was called, played a year in the Canadian Football League to earn money for medical school at UVA. He specialized in psychiatry and established a practice in California.

Even as he built a life in the U.S., Bakhtiar had a nagging sense of disenfranchisement and a yearning to connect with what he called “the other half of his life,” he told The Washington Post. He moved back to Iran in 1975, established the country’s first psychiatric units and chaired the psychiatry department at the University of Isfahan.

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Bakhtiar, who called himself apolitical, was initially hopeful, he said in a 1982 interview.

In time, his situation became untenable. Being U.S.-educated and from a prominent Iranian family, he was viewed as suspicious at best, a possible spy at worst. With his son nearing military age, he made plans to leave. Before he could, he was taken prisoner and interrogated for 30 days.

“It was scary,’ he recalled in 2007. “It wasn’t like playing Virginia Tech.”

The regime seized his bank account and passport and forbade him to leave for five years. Bakhtiar and his family made a harrowing escape, meeting up with guides who led them on a two-day trip on horseback through mountainous terrain until they arrived at the border with Turkey.

Bakhtiar eventually made his way back to Charlottesville, where, with help from friends at UVA, he began assembling a new life. He enjoyed a long and successful second act as a psychiatrist in New Mexico, Virginia and West Virginia. In 2006, he received the Football Writers Association of America All-American Alumni Award, and UVA retired his jersey.

He is survived by five children and eight grandchildren.

—Ed Miller