Tuan Anh Pham risked everything to escape communism at age 30, trading most of his assets for a spot aboard a fishing boat leaving Vietnam with his young family.

That daring decision would become the first chapter in an American success story. Among the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants in Minnesota, Pham launched a business — Tuan Auto Repair — that has become a staple of St. Paul's Midway area for more than three decades.

Pham, a pillar of the local Vietnamese community, died of cancer at United Hospital in St. Paul on July 22. He was 72.

"He just had this mastery of … building connections and maintaining connections with people," said his daughter Sophia of St. Paul.

Raised in a rural part of South Vietnam, Pham served alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War as a mechanic in the special forces of the People's Army of Vietnam. The Communist government killed several of his siblings, fueling Pham's lifelong passion as a vocal anti-communist, his daughter said.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Pham operated a transportation service. But oppression by the Communists became too much to bear. Pham and his wife, Net, bartered their family's valuables to secure passage to a refugee camp in Malaysia for themselves and their two young daughters.

"It was a classic case of starting literally from nothing," Sophia Pham said.

A Vietnamese refugee in Minnesota sponsored the Phams' move to the United States. They arrived in late 1979, and got settled thanks to the help of a local family affiliated with a Catholic church in St. Paul. Tuan Pham never forgot the generosity of Frank and Lois Wethern, and the families remained close until the Wetherns died.

After fixing cars out of his garage in Merriam Park, Pham opened a repair shop on University Avenue in 1986. Ultan Duggan, who owns a building next door, watched the business steadily grow over the years. Customer appreciation was evident from the notes and thank you cards adorning the walls.

"He had that entrepreneurial spirit that most people in America today would say, 'God, I wish I had some of that,' " Duggan said.

Pham's son, Raks, of Eagan, began helping out at the shop as a teenager and ultimately took over the business. Even after retiring, his father was a frequent presence at the shop.

"He was such a hard worker," Raks Pham said. "That's what he instilled in me, is just always working hard."

Through their efforts, the Phams were able to put their children through private schools and send money back to his family in Vietnam. "I thank you to all the people in the United States," Pham said in a recent public TV interview. "And I do everything I can do, the best I can do."

Pham was active in the local Vietnamese community, serving as president of the Fellowship of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Servicemen in Minnesota. He cofounded the Coalition of Allied Vietnam War Veterans.

Pham was also outspoken, particularly against communism. He urged local building owners, for example, to swap out the Vietnamese flag, a symbol of the country's Communist Party, for the flag of the former South Vietnam.

Allen Tran, a friend of Pham's, said his hatred of communism was balanced by his warm nature. He called him "a big-hearted person" who loved helping people: "Every time we have a big event in the community, he's always there." Hundreds attended Pham's funeral in late July.

Besides his daughter Sophia and son Raks, Pham is survived by his wife, Net, of St. Paul; daughter Nhung Hamilton of Fort Worth, Texas; sister Su of Fridley, and brother Tan of Vietnam.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732