Vy Van Pham never talked much about how he had met with President Jimmy Carter, saved hundreds of people fleeing South Vietnam after the war, mortgaged his home to help finance a Vietnamese community center in St. Paul or organized labor movements across the country.
He led by action.
“He was a giant of a man, and we’ve had very few giants in our community in terms of [being] a visionary for all people,” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council.
Terrill had just become the St. Paul human rights director in 1997 when Vy Van Pham introduced himself. “He thought it was important to collaborate and work together,” Terrill said. “He wanted great things for the Vietnamese people, but he believed all people are connected. And when one [group] suffers, we all suffer. He was wise beyond his years. ”
Vy Van Pham, of Minneapolis, died April 2. He was 83.
He was born in northern Vietnam but when the country split, he fled the communists in 1954 and settled in South Vietnam, working on a rubber plantation and then as a union leader, his family said.
“I remember we had to put our father’s occupation on school applications and he would say, put down that I work for the people,” daughter Hue Pham said. “He was a very humble person. He worked and lived for the people.”
When it came time to flee Vietnam, Vy Van Pham could have boarded a helicopter with his family, said his son Cuong Pham. Instead, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, he helped 200 co-workers and their families flee Vietnam on a barge to Guam before being flown to the United States. After six months at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, most of the refugees resettled in Texas or California. His father chose Minnesota.
His father fell in love with Minnesota after visiting it during one of his many earlier trips to the United States. “He loved the natural beauty and learned it had a good public school system,” said his son Nam Pham. “He wanted us all to have a good education.”
Vy Van Pham continued his union work as a national organizer for the AFL-CIO and helped mediate a three-month textile workers’ strike in Los Angeles. “My father had a gift,” Cuong Pham said. “He could reason with people.”
Eventually, he went to work for Hennepin County’s child protection services, retiring about 10 years ago after 20 years on the job, Cuong Pham said. Along the way, Vy Van Pham served on a variety of community commissions and advisory councils. He also worked with the Minneapolis police and other law enforcement agencies in bridging the gap between cultures.
“Because of his work, the Minneapolis Police Department became much more … diverse and culturally sensitive,” said former Minneapolis Council Member Diane Hofstede, a longtime neighbor and friend.
To fill a gap within the Vietnamese community, Vy Van Pham mortgaged his home to help finance a center that would become a “multigenerational home to preserve the culture,” his son Nam Pham said. He served 25 years as chairman of the Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota, a nonprofit that helps refugees and others in the community.
“My father’s legacy is that he was a giver,” Cuong Pham said. “He told me every day in your life, you have to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Vy Van Pham is survived by his wife, Be Nguyen, of Minneapolis; sons Quynh of Plymouth, Nam of Boston, Cuong of Plymouth, Duc of Minneapolis and Binh of Kansas City; daughters Lan of Bahrain, Hue of Minneapolis, Hoa of Eden Prairie and Mai of Irvine, Calif.; and 14 grandchildren.
Services have been held.