Vietnamese immigrant pursued American dream to Fort Worth

Posted Friday, Jul. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information Funeral 9 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, 5109 E. Lancaster Ave. in Fort Worth

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When he was about 17, Nguyen Nguyen stepped into a boat sailing from the coast of Vietnam into the unknown. He carried with him the hope for freedom and a sense of family duty.

It was 1980. Mr. Nguyen’s father, who had served in the South Vietnam military alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, was in a communist government prison.

“He never told us he was afraid,” said Phi Nguyen, 24, one of Nguyen’s four daughters, on Friday. “He never voiced that to us. I think my dad was just thinking, ‘I need to get over there.’ ”

As the first son, he needed to find a way to help his parents and siblings, she said.

A few years later, he had reached Fort Worth, and by the 1990s, Mr. Nguyen had helped bring 19 family members to the United States, including his parents.

Mr. Nguyen died July 17 of cancer. He was 50.

“What a legacy he left. What a legacy,” said Jan Fersing, Mr. Nguyen’s employer of 15 years and a family friend. “They saw a brighter future that they were willing to take a chance for. It’s got to be an inspiration.”

Thao Nguyen, Mr. Nguyen’s wife of 26 years, said her husband left Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 1980, one of 13 people on a boat that later lost its engine. They all crowded onto another boat.

Leaving Vietnam was not easy, family members said. He tried to sneak out two or three times before he actually got on a boat.

“If you got caught, they threw you in jail,” Phi Nguyen said.

Mr. Nguyen spent three years in a refugee camp in the Philippines waiting for permission to come to the United States, which he eventually received because of his father’s war service.

He spent a few months in Houston and later moved to Fort Worth where a friend of his father had established a new life, Phi Nguyen said.

He was introduced to his future wife by a mutual acquaintance, family members said. She had been trying to figure out how to apply for college, and Mr. Nguyen was attending classes at Tarrant County College.

Mr. Nguyen transferred to the University of Texas at Arlington and was just shy of earning an engineering degree when he quit school to focus on working and bringing his parents and siblings to the United States.

“He had to stop going to school,” said Phi Nguyen. “He never finished out his degree, but he made it clear to us that we definitely should get ours.”

The Nguyens encouraged their children to work hard and save every penny. When they wanted to go to Disneyland, the Nguyen siblings saved $1,000 for the trip from their birthday gifts and odd jobs, Phi Nguyen said. But in the end, that money went into a college savings account and their parents paid for the trip.

“It was our first big vacation,” Phi Nguyen said. “He liked it. I think he had fun.”

The family wants to be sure the doctors and nurses who cared for Mr. Nguyen knew he was grateful.

In April, after brain surgery, Mr. Nguyen asked his family to bring cake to the medical staff. He was very specific about what the cake should say, Phi Nguyen said. “What’s your name and date of birth? Nguyen Nguyen. May 19, 1963,” a joking reference to the familiar question-and-answer medical routine.

Other survivors include daughters Ly Nguyen, My Nguyen and Thy Nguyen; a son, Vy Nguyen; parents Binh and Ngoc Nguyen; two brothers; and six sisters.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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