As Vietnamese refugees huddled by the thousands in processing centers in this country in the days following the fall of South Vietnam 40 years ago this month, then-Gov. Dan Evans made Washington the first state to extend a welcome to an eventual several thousand refugees in what was undoubtedly one of the state's finest hours.
Now the outreach and leadership role Evans played are being celebrated next Monday evening at Kane Hall at the University of Washington with a 40-minute screening of the Academy-Award nominated Last Days in Vietnam.The screening will be followed by a conversation including Evans and Ralph Munro, later the long-term Washington Secretary of State but then an intern in Evans' office who was dispatched to Camp Pendleton, CA, the West Coast processing center for the refugees.
|Ralph Munro with Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton|
It was in April of 1975, with the North Vietnamese army closing in on Saigon, that the 5,000 remaining Americans hurried to get out. And because of the 11th-hour bravery of some Americans, 135,000 South Vietnamese managed to escape and many made their way to processing centers in the U.S., including Camp Pendleton.
Munro remembers viewing the sprawling tent-camp for the refugees, meeting with some of them, then meeting with the Camp Pendleton base commander, who asked: "Do you want these people?" Munro says he responded "Yes. I think we do."
Munro recalls that Washington's interest in caring for the immigrants came about when Evans heard that California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown made it clear he was not going to permit the Vietnam refugees to be received into his state.
So Evans dispatched Munro to California with the admonition, "If you see that S.O.B. (and he didn't abbreviate the profanity, though Evans was never known to swear) Brown, remind him what it says on the face of the Statue of Liberty."
Munro recalls his first view at Camp Pendleton of the refugee encampment: "The sun was starting to set and I came over this hill and I just saw thousands of tents."
Once he connected with the refugees at their camp, Munro got on a loudspeaker and offered that those who wanted to do so could come to Washington and many quickly stepped forward.
Evans laughs "a lot of them probably thought they were going to Washington, D.C."
While the transit of the refugees was being arranged, Evans' office was contacting churches, community groups and people who might work with a single family. "We found more volunteers than we could handle," he said in a phone interview.
So the first 500 began making their way to Seattle, then 1,500, and on May 8, 1975, Evans personally carried a letter to President Gerald ford formally advising him that the state was agreeing to be involved in the resettlement effort.
Evans recalls that President Ford soon created the Presidential Commission on Refugees "and we were able to bring the commission the experience we had with the refugees and that helped create the methodology for dealing with the refugees."
He notes that ironically, despite Jerry Brown's desire to keep the Vietnamese refugees out of his state, today California, along with Texas and Washington, are the three states with the largest population of Vietnamese.
So that Monday evening gathering, sponsored by KCTS9 and the Seattle Times, will wind up with a community recognition of Evans and the role he played.
But Dan and Nancy Evans' personal story within the broader story of outreach to the Vietnamese is perhaps even more compelling than the welcome of the eventual 1,500 refugees to a new life and newopportunity in this state.
Evans recalls one family they came in contact with when they went to visit the refugees at Camp Murrray, the state's National Guard headquarters south of Tacoma. It was the Nguyen family, husband, pregnant wife and their five children.
When the sixth child was born, they named him Evans in honor of the governor whose state welcomed them.
"We got to know the family and followed them and saw their focus on education for their children," Evans recalls. "The outcome was the first five were all valedictorians of their high school classes."
"Then as we waited for the invitation to Evans' graduation and none came, we contacted the parents and learned that they were reluctant to invite us because he was not the valedictorian," Evans chucked. "But he was in the top 10 in his class."
Evans recalls that there were two shrines in the Nguyen house. "One was a religious shrine," said Evans. "The other one was in the living room where six UW graduation certificates were displayed."