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Wednesday, September 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wings For `Angel Of Saigon' -- `Betty Tisdale Day' Honors The Woman Who Rescued 219 Orphans - A Story She Hopes Will Prompt Others To Help Children

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

If Betty Tisdale could have a single reward for helping rescue more than 200 orphans from war-torn Vietnam, it wouldn't be having today named to honor her, a TV movie made about her, or being nicknamed the "Angel of Saigon."

All those have happened, and each is gratifying, but Tisdale wants more.

"What I would really want is for people to help other people, especially children," said Tisdale, a Queen Anne resident whose story of devotion to children in need has touched hearts around the world.

In the weeks before Saigon fell in 1975, Tisdale arranged for 219 children from the An Lac orphanage, where she had worked two months a year since 1961, to fly to the United States for adoption.

"I can't imagine where I'd be if it weren't for her," said Mary Tripoli, 26, of Washington, D.C., one of several An Loc adoptees coming to Seattle today - a day both King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell have proclaimed "Betty Tisdale Day."

Tonight, Tisdale will be honored by the Greater Seattle Viet Nam Association, formed 13 years ago to promote friendship and understanding between residents of Seattle and Vietnam.

Tripoli has no memory of the evacuation from Vietnam; she was a 14-month-old baby at the time. But the move brought her to a loving home, gave her the chance for an education and success.

She has a degree in creative writing and now develops on-screen content for America Online.

Tisdale's importance in her life, Tripoli said, really hit home when she got an envelope from her mother a few years ago. Inside was a newspaper story about Tisdale, to which her mother had attached a sticky note that said simply, "This is the woman who brought you to us."

To understand the power of Tisdale's story, don't look at the vast array of awards that have come her way; look instead at the faces in a photo album on her coffee table.

In those photographs from the An Lac orphanage are children in rusty metal cribs, children washing with wet rags for lack of a shower or tub, and children suffering maladies ranging from skin sores to polio.

If you look at such faces and see not just suffering, but an opportunity to help, you may share the world view Tisdale has come to adopt.

Even though Tisdale keeps a framed letter from Mother Teresa by her front door, she admits she hasn't always been as selfless.

Decades ago, when she first heard that the children of Vietnam needed help, "I did what everybody else did. I gave five dollars."

But Tisdale became inspired by the work of Dr. Tom Dooley, an American Navy officer who helped the sick and poor of Southeast Asia. She worked for Dooley as a volunteer, eventually traveling to the An Lac orphanage he helped found.

The faces she saw there burned into her consciousness. For years, she spent all her vacation time there; back home, she raised funds for the orphanage.

Her job, as private secretary to the late U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits of New York, helped her meet people who could help both financially and with large-scale donations of food and other needed items.

As the end appeared inevitable for South Vietnam, she helped instigate the flurry of paperwork and diplomatic logistics that paved the way for the orphans to come to the United States.

She remembers distinctly one of the most difficult moments, when a South Vietnamese official told her only those under 10 would be allowed to leave.

"They felt they needed everyone who might possibly help defend their country," Tisdale said, saying the decision cut her list of evacuees from more than 400 to 219. She and her then-husband adopted five of the orphaned girls themselves.

She hoped she might be allowed to return later to get the others, but that day never came. Some were scattered to other orphanages, some were sent to work camps.

Another An Lac orphan in town for today's event is Dinh Dolan, 33, now a chef in San Francisco.

Dolan has vivid memories of the orphanage. "It was a concrete building. A bunch of us slept in one big room, just on the floor."

Both of his parents were killed in the war; he was 9 at the time of the evacuation.

Of Tisdale's role in his survival and success, Dolan says simply, "I'm very grateful to her. I feel that I owe her my life."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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