The lights typically remained on long after closing time at Needle Trix tailor shop in Plymouth, where Mike Phung often worked meticulously into the night.
Decades after fleeing communism in Vietnam, Phung was achieving success in America. His hard work had earned him a reputation as a first-class tailor, which helped him raise a family and grow his business.
But it came to an abrupt end on Oct. 20 when Phung, who was not vaccinated, died of COVID-19. He was 61.
Phung was the type of skilled tailor who could completely deconstruct a piece of clothing and rebuild it again. He had a soft-spoken, honest personality that put customers at ease, according to people close to him. And he rarely turned down a job.
"He was one special individual," said Barbara Koch, a longtime Twin Cities philanthropist and Needle Trix customer. "He was so kind, good, considerate and an excellent artisan."
During the early days of the pandemic, restaurant owner Suzanne Varecka would sometimes close early and cry in the back hallway of the strip mall she shares with Needle Trix and several other businesses. Phung would often be there to console her.
"He [would say], 'Don't worry, people will come out and support you. It's going to happen. We have a good community,'" Varecka said. "He'd be like, 'We're living the dream. … Just keep sweating and you'll keep making money.'"
Varecka organized a GoFundMe fundraiser to benefit Phung's wife, Cindy Huynh and their two children — ages 9 and 12.
"Mike helped my husband and I so many times repair and restore the fit of some of our most treasured fashion pieces," one donor wrote. "He was amazing at his practice and will be deeply missed by all who had the honor of knowing him."
Huynh, who speaks limited English, was still breaking the news of her husband's death one recent afternoon to customers who dropped by the shop where they both worked. Huynh is now reluctantly trying to sell Needle Trix because she must care for her two young children.
"He was such a marvelous man," responded one shocked customer who had brought in a robe for alterations.
Huynh described her husband's past to a reporter through her friend Haidi Phan, acting as an interpreter.
Phung, whose name in Vietnamese is Phung Mai, grew up in the coastal city of Vũng Tàu in southern Vietnam. Faced with mandatory military service under communist rule after the Vietnam War, he fled the country with other refugees who became known as "boat people" because of the small vessels they boarded.
Phung learned how to tailor clothes while living in Georgia. He worked for Dayton's Warehouse and Men's Wearhouse before joining Huynh at Needle Trix under its former owner, who sold him the business when he retired.
He enjoyed being a tailor because he could make people feel good about the way they look and fit in their own clothes, his wife said. She added that he did not want to hire other employees because he had such high standards.
"They put everything into this shop," Phan said. "Their dreams and money and time."
In addition to his wife, Cindy, of Crystal, Phung is survived by his mother, Dong Pham of Vietnam, and children Andy Mai and Anna Mai of Crystal. Services have been held.