Carefully, Tony Pham pulls the fourth photocopy of his “boarding pass” from his black leather wallet and unfolds it.
Dated April 19, 1975, the arrival of the letter marked the end of Pham’s early life in Vietnam, just days before Saigon fell.
That was the day he, his mother and two sisters stepped aboard one of the final commercial flights out of the country and made their way to Guam before ending up at Fort Chaffee, Ark.
“During that period of time, without something like that (letter), families weren’t going to get through the gate,” Pham said. “We were very blessed to know someone who knew an aunt of mine, kind enough to want to save a family.”
Pham, 45, was 2 years old at the time. Even today, the stories of their escape from South Vietnam strike a raw nerve.
Pham’s father was an engineer for the South Vietnamese Army. He fled from Hanoi to Saigon with his extended family in 1954 after persecution in the north.
“Because of previous persecution in Hanoi...Captain Thang (Pham) and his family are subject again to (p)ersecution.”
Three months after Pham’s arrival in Arkansas, his father joined them.
“God, we were a ragtag family,” Pham said of their arrival in Arkansas. “There were a lot of us, but we made it. Miraculously, after about 90 days, my father was able to find us.”
The elder Pham stood at his post as his wife and family fled — officers were shooting deserters, Pham said.
The family eventually relocated with the help of Commonwealth Catholic Charities to a subsidized, one-bedroom apartment in Henrico County that has since been razed, he said.
Pham’s parents worked two jobs. The family struggled — primarily living off a bowl of rice and an egg each day, Pham said.
“My dad worked as an auto mechanic,” Pham said. “He just had a tough time grasping the English language, but he was good with his hands and an engineer.”
Pham’s mother worked as a seamstress and at a movie theater in Carytown in Richmond.
“Those were the things I remember growing up. They’re still with me today.”
Both of Pham’s parents were educated and stressed to all three of their children to study and work hard.
“Education is the equalizer,” Pham said. “When you’re broke and you have nothing, you have access in America to education. You have to go to school.”
In 1995, Pham graduated from the College of William and Mary and eventually pursued a career in law as a prosecutor.
“As you learn knowledge, that’s something people can’t take from you,” Pham said. “I entered a world where people took everything … the one thing they can never take is what I gained in education.”
As a prosecutor, he fought to put people in jail; now he’s the jailer.
Pham took a job as superintendent of the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail one year ago; he and his wife are also raising two teenagers.
That letter from 1975 was just the beginning for Pham. He’s never forgotten where he came from or how he got where he is now: hard work, good fortune, heeding his parents.
“God, you think about our history in this country,” Pham said of Vietnamese refugees. “I’m not even first generation (American). People died in that war so one kid could someday run a jail.
“I’m thankful for being alive, for my parents, for the 58,000 who gave their lives so my community could get to this country.”
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.