It all started with an open door and generous hearts

Both families worked and saved and in June 1981, boarded a Greyhound bus to move to San Francisco. Parishioners from both St. Charles and St. Patrick’s were there to say farewell and Godspeed! (photo courtesy Mary Ann Glenski and Fran Gillespie)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Remember the Vietnam War? Those who do may recall the thousands of South Vietnamese who fled their homeland after the creation of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975, fearing reprisals from the Communist government. Air travel out of the country was impossible as leaving Vietnam was an illegal act; many took to makeshift, overcrowded boats in an attempt to start over in a new land. Somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 died in the attempt, by drowning, being attacked by pirates and murdered or sold into slavery or prostitution.

Those that survived were rescued by friendly ships and eventually resettled in the United States, Europe and Australia. It often took several years for resettlement to occur. The U.S. accepted 823,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Two of those boat families were rescued and transported to Fort Chaffee, a former military base in Arkansas that served as a refugee camp. After some time in the camp, they were resettled in Kansas City.

The Van Le families — two brothers, their wives and children — landed at KCI airport Sept. 10, 1979. Two northland Catholic parishes had agreed to help them get settled, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Patrick. In the days before they arrived, St. Charles Borromeo parishioners, led by the parish Social Action Committee, furnished and stocked a rented two-bedroom house near a bus line, belonging to St. Charles parishioner Bob Bromberg, for one of the families, Hiep and his wife Thu and their two children Duc and Trang.

Bromberg recalled how welcoming the neighbors were, whether Catholic or not, and the way they watched over the Vietnamese family.

John and Mary Ann Glenski, their children Mark, Sarah and John, introduced the family to Kansas City and to their parish. The Glenskis and some of the other parishioners taught the family the ins and outs of city bus riding, grocery shopping and refrigeration.

Mary Ann remembered being surprised and a bit amused when the family insisted on going to church with her and her husband. She thought they were Buddhist or a similar faith tradition, but almost every Sunday they were waiting for the Glenskis to pick them up and take them to St. Charles.

Mark Glenski, then in sixth grade at St. Charles School (now Borromeo Academy), became good friends with Duc Le. Sarah, a first grader, shepherded little Trang.

St. Patrick’s parishioners helped Hiep’s brother Cuong, his wife Sam, and their six children, Liem, Tuyen, Truong, Huu, Dung and Thanh settle in to their rented home. Mark also became friends with Liem Van Le, Duc’s cousin. The boys played a lot of soccer together. “I kind of protected Duc,” Mark recalled.

Hiep Van Le and his wife Thu with their two children, Duc and Trang, in 1979. The family was settled, assisted and loved by St. Charles Borromeo parishioners. (photo courtesy Mary Ann Glenski and Fran Gillespie)

Hiep Le found work for a company in downtown Kansas City that made shelving. “He worked very hard,” Mary Ann Glenski recalled.

That winter was very cold, and Hiep and his family had arrived without suitable coats. So, Mary Ann took Hiep shopping. He found a coat he fell in love with, a black coat with a fur collar. He had to have that coat. She didn’t have the heart to tell him it was a woman’s coat. He wore it all winter.

She also was on call, for doctor’s appointments and emergency room visits.

While their kids were in school, the adults attended night school, to learn English.

Hiep and his family lived in the rental house until they had saved enough to move to San Francisco, where Hiep and Cuong’s extended family lived. Cuong’s family decided to move to San Francisco at the same time.

In June 1981, the 12 Van Les boarded a Greyhound bus for the long trip to San Francisco. The Glenskis, Fran Gillespie and several other parishioners from both St. Charles and St. Patrick’s were there to wish them “Godspeed.”

Mark, Duc and Liem stayed in touch off and on as the years passed, and then earlier this year, the Glenskis received a letter from Liem.

He opened by saying the Van Le family wanted to “sincerely thank you for all that you’ve done for us and this would include the (St. Charles Borromeo) Church and all the families (John and Mary Ann Glenski and their kids, Letty Baker, Bob Bromberg, Karen Allen and Fran Gillespie) who helped our families. Your generosity and kindness gave us the start to a life of freedom and opportunity here in the United States … that would have otherwise only been a dream.”

Liem continued, describing the efforts his parents, aunt and uncle, the children too, made to “earn and save enough money to pay rent and other expenses.”

He wrote, “Upon first landing in San Francisco, my parents, uncle and aunt resumed night school to learn English and … all my siblings and cousins started at local schools.” During the days, the adults “worked toward and eventually purchased a small fishing boat as a means of income. …we also ventured to Gilroy (a Bay Area city with a strong agricultural as well as technological emphasis) to gather the remaining garlic cloves after the farmers had completed their seasonal harvest. We hand-picked buckets and buckets of garlic, packed them in our truck and returned to the city to Ziploc bag and sell for $1 a bag. My brothers and I would take the bags of garlic downtown after school and sell them. We did this for several years. Then, we began collecting recycling materials. My parents would ask us to contact companies in downtown San Francisco to see if they would let us pick up their recycling paper. After we organized a pick -up, my parents would sell the papers, typically … six days a week.” Liem said the family did that for nearly 15 years.

Cuong Van Le, his wife Sam and their children, Liem, Tuyen, Truong, Huu, Dung and Thanh, in 1979. The family was helped by St. Patrick’s parishioners. (photo courtesy Mary Ann Glenski and Fran Gillespie)

He said that all eight cousins graduated from high school and then college; education was very important to the older Van Les. They continued to learn English through night classes and through interacting with companies when picking up paper for recycling.

The older Van Les — Hiep and Thu, and Cuong and Sam — “are all retired now,” Liem wrote. “Through their hard work for all of those years, they own their own homes and have always stressed hard work to each of us and the importance of owing our own homes, which we all do. My siblings, cousins and I have all become quite successful through a variety of careers — programmer, financial manager, sales rep, business owners. Now we find ourselves successful in our careers and financially stable, passing down a strong work ethic and motivation to continuing education to our children.” He said all their children are either attending college or will begin after graduating from high school.

“Our story has been an amazing one that began with an open door and a generous church family in Kansas City. Looking back, we could have never arrived here, both literally and figuratively, to where we are without that generosity. Humbled and blessed thanks to you for all that you made possible!”

It was a challenging two years for the Americans, but inspiring, so much that when the Greyhound bus left Kansas City, they had tears in their eyes.

Mark and his wife plan to travel to California this summer to reunite with Liem and Duc. Mary Ann Glenski and Fran Gillespie agreed, “Those years were some of the best times of my life!”

Although the Boat People crisis was long ago, Vietnamese still come to the U.S. in search of a better life. Mary Ann said, “We need to be a welcoming country. Immigration can work. New families are revitalizing, a shot in the arm for this country and us.”

Borromeo Academy is one of several Catholic grade and high schools in the Kansas City area that has F-1 status, in other words, an international student with an F-1 visa can stay nine years and attend Borromeo Academy and then St. Pius X High School, also with F-1 status. Principal Ann Lachowitzer said, “In the past four years, we’ve had a new international student each year. Five new Vietnamese students from three families are enrolled at the Academy this school year.”


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October 30, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph