An Angel Gets Her Wings

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Betty Tisdale, Angel of Saigon, walked off the plane that morning and I was surprised by two things: she's tiny, and she truly is an angel.

She had arrived in Denver to speak for the Somewhere in the World Foundation's gala fundraiser about her work in Viet Nam and her participation in Operation Babylift. As the foundation's public relations director, I was responsible for uncovering her story and putting it into the public eye. It was a challenge, but just 24 hours before her plane landed, I'd been able to arrange a televised airport reunion between Betty and one of her Babylift "babies." I shared Betty's lifetime of heroic accomplishments with the reporter, and I imagined that she would be spit and polish, bigger than life, a consummate professional and polished speaker. In reality she was a diminutive woman, a blonde grandmother with an impressive sense of style, who reached up to hold the face of a grown man who had been only three weeks old when she arranged his escape from a sinking Saigon.

In her voice was an instant recognition and love of Robert Ballard, who was once called Vu Tien Do, II. Through her hands came the same warmth that had comforted the 219 Vietnamese orphans she rescued that day in April, 1975. I watched Betty and Bert hold hands a lot over the next four days. They connected in a physical way like a reunited birthmother and son who once had an adventure only the two of them could share.

During her stay in Denver, Betty spoke to me about that time in Viet Nam and about working today with her new organization, Helping And Loving Orphans (HALO).

Betty's belief in every child's right to a family came early when at age 9 she went to live with relatives after her father died and her mother became ill. She was a young working girl in New York City when she had an opportunity to read the works of Dr. Tom Dooley. This "saint" spearheaded the Navy effort called "Operation Freedom," which helped to evacuate more than half a million people from North to South Vietnam in 1954-1955. His three books, including Deliver Us from Evil, chronicled his work establishing hospitals and orphanages in Southeast Asia.

After she actually met Dr. Dooley, Betty set out for Viet Nam to see it for herself, and never again would live the life of a New York socialite. Instead, she embraced Dooley's philosophy of giving every child, "an education and a healthy body." In 1961, just after Dooley died of cancer at age 34, she began yearly treks to the An Lac orphanage in Saigon that had been founded by Madame Vu Thi Ngai, and that was one of Dr. Dooley's projects. Through the next 14 years Betty extended her annual vacation time to work at An Lac, and the rest of the year was spent raising nearly all its financial support.

When Betty became personal secretary to the late US Senator Jacob Javits, she met the contacts and constituents who could raise the funds and donations of sorely needed supplies, toys, clothing, and money. She eventually married Patrick Tisdale, a retired Army pediatrician and widower who had five sons to raise. Together they nurtured many Vietnamese children including their five adopted daughters from An Lac.

It was in the final weeks of the war that Betty won national attention. Arriving in Saigon with plans to evacuate more than 400 children, Betty negotiated with the government of South Viet Nam, which finally released only 219 of the "babies." The remaining children were required to stay and help in the war effort. After no response from the Secretary of the Army, Betty actually appealed to his mother to arrange temporary housing for the children at Fort Benning, Ga. Once the children arrived safely, Betty expedited their adoptions. In 1980, the story was made into a television movie, "The Children of An Lac" starring Shirley Jones and Ina Balin, an actress who played herself in the role of Betty's assistant in Saigon. Balin also adopted two of the baby girls evacuated from An Lac.

For Betty, the war had made getting the children out a compulsion, but it still took her nearly 20 years to reconcile, within herself, that she had done the right thing. "In 1975, I was not going to leave the kids there, but I asked myself if this was the right thing," Betty remembered. "What would have happened? The babies would have been dead, in other orphanages, or in work camps."

She had not attempted an earlier return because of rumors that she was on the communist list as a "baby stealer." But in April 1995, Betty and her daughter Kim Lan finally went back to Viet Nam and visited the An Lac building. An Lac, Vietnamese for "happy place," had been converted into low-income housing.

The trip was successful with a reunion of 60 of the children - now adults - who had been left behind. One particular "baby," Thao, recalled celebrating Christmas singing carols and receiving gifts brought by the American soldiers. Betty is still visibly moved when she talks about meeting those she left behind, and how they greeted her at the reunion with "Jingle Bells," just as she had taught them 25 years before.

She described how difficult their lives are still. "Thao and his family have no luxuries, no water, only two burners to cook on, and they wash their dishes in the river. They have nothing, but their kids will because their kids will be educated."

Betty has raised ten children, endured a divorce, and relocated to Seattle, but she's always had time for her humanitarian pursuits. She acts as an information resource and go-between for others involved in philanthropy, and she is active in the Tibetan human rights campaign. She also serves on the boards of the Variety Club, a children's charity; the World Affairs Council, an educational organization; and the Greater Seattle Vietnam Association.

This past summer, Betty created an organization to carry on her work: HALO - Helping And Loving Orphans. Betty's HALO will help multiple orphanages around the world, and she has already committed to a number of projects including building a Quang Nai orphanage annex, which stands in the exact location of Tom Dooley's first clinic. Six large rooms are planned, with an adequate number of bathrooms, for the 150 homeless children who are waiting outside the orphanage for a place to live.

Another project will supply milk for 100 babies at the Thu Doc orphanage, where the babies of An Lac who had not been evacuated lived after the Babylift. Today there are rooms set aside just for the HIV babies, for lepers and other infants who were affected by Agent Orange. Care in the orphanages still varies, however, and Betty stresses that, "The caregivers still have little or no training in hand-washing, sterilizing, or using clean cloths for burp rags." She adds, "I want to get the supplies to stock the dispensary. And even though the government gives minimal support, we really do have to insist on the kids going to school."

In Da Nang there are government "houses" where homeless kids can come to study and sleep after working for their support at the garbage dump. One of these "foster homes" will receive a new roof through Betty's efforts. Then, there is an orphanage in the Philippines with no running water. An Oregon Rotary Club is building a school in Africa that will require supplies. Betty left this morning for Bogota, Columbia, where she will visit an orphanage of 130 abandoned and disabled children. The situation will be accessed and a project assigned to HALO. Later this year she will visit Romania. "The need is great worldwide," Betty tells us., "The need is no less now than it was. And money is most important."

When Betty described her years at An Lac, it was easy to understand why the Vietnamese called her the Angel of Saigon. Her work was always intense and passionate, and she did it without fanfare or complaint. Her dedicated life inspires us to work for other people, especially children, and for that she has earned her halo and her wings.

Yet, what I appreciated most about Betty was her easy laugh and open, warm-hearted spirit. Amidst the television interviews, speaking engagements, and glamorous evenings, Betty Tisdale is still accessible. She deserved to be wined and dined, but her first night here she agreed to sandwiches from McDonald's, which we ate with my daughters in her hotel room. She generously filled their little hands with soaps from the bathroom and the best cheeses from her fruit basket. The following day I was equally impressed as she spoke of her commitment to the serious work facing HALO - but then lingered at my kitchen table a moment longer to look through a catalogue and consider certain posture-improving garments.

Betty even went shopping with my mother at our local consignment shop. With her marvelous and dry sense of humor, Betty said with a smile, "I never pay for anything." And she usually doesn't have to. In Betty's world, money spent frivolously is quite literally taking food from the mouths of children.

Betty has taught me that being an angel means doing whatever job needs doing, with a joyful heart. It means helping wherever needed, but still taking enough time to enjoy and appreciate our own lives.

I give a lot of time to the Somewhere in the World Foundation because, like Betty, I'll never forget what I saw when I adopted my daughters: the children who were left behind. I don't know that I'll ever earn a halo or wings, but I do know that the foundation's work on behalf of the "unadoptable" in foreign lands does create significant change.

You can be a part of that change, too. If you'd like more information on Betty Tisdale's HALO, visit the Somewhere in the World Foundation at

Caroline F. Daniel, M.A. is the single mother of Chloé, 5, from China, and of Robin, 3, from Viet Nam. Her e-mail is and she would enjoy hearing from you!

Credits: Adoption Today

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