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Online exclusive:Michael Le

The people who propelled Michael Lê’s success

By Philip Walzer

As a teenager, Michael Lê '80 made a dramatic escape from Vietnam after the Communist takeover, barely surviving a 4-week journey across the ocean.

But his early life, from childhood through his time at Old Dominion University, was also defined by major influences and other significant moments. Here are some of them:

His parents: Lê's father had been a respected teacher and scholar in North Vietnam. His students feared that, as an intellectual, he would be persecuted by the Vietnamese Communists. So the year before Michael's birth, they helped Lê's parents and older siblings escape.

His family "traveled by night and hid by day" until they arrived at Haiphong Bay. From there, they set off on a makeshift raft and were picked up by an American boat. The family ended up at a refugee camp in South Vietnam, where Michael was born.

Only a few months earlier, the family had suffered a tragedy that shadowed Michael's childhood.

Lê's mother and his next-oldest brother contracted pneumonia. His mother survived, but his brother died. "My mother said he was like an angel," he said. "He held everybody's hand before he passed away....She had a tough time. She was crying a lot when I was a little kid."

His father struggled with a peptic ulcer when Michael was growing up, requiring frequent trips to the clinic. That mired the family in debt, and they weren't sure how much longer he would survive.

"He called me to his side and said the last words quite a few times," Michael recalled. "I was always feeling I would lose my father."

His parents' challenges took an emotional toll on Michael. "Things would cause me to cry or to get angry quite easily. But emotion never carried me down."

Though surrounded by poverty, Michael compared his younger self to Tom Sawyer, finding simple ways to divert himself, like shooting marbles. "It was the only way for me to have fun," he said. He was so good at it, he became "a hired gun for other kids who begged me to shoot for them."

His father worked as an administrative secretary - or assistant principal - of a high school outside Saigon. He also pushed education at home. "He was determined that we all had to pass the second baccalaureate," the exam required to attend college, Michael said. And they all did.

His father died in 1985, after Michael had moved to the United States. His sister said only two personal items were found in his wallet: an image of the Virgin Mary and a photo of Michael.

His mother is 97 and lives in Florida with two of his sisters.

His English skills: When Lê arrived in the United States, he was skilled in English - and he wasn't.

He had learned some English from his oldest brother and in classes at a Mennonite church. He'd also taken a literature class in college in which he read such classics as "Pride and Prejudice," "Moby Dick" and "Jane Eyre" - all in English.

"I was pretty good with reading and writing, but whenever I wanted to express myself in an elegant way, I had trouble. I wasn't able to speak naturally. I sounded very much like a translation." Plus, he had trouble understanding what other people were saying.

He got his first lesson - times two - on English vernacular on his first day as a dishwasher at a Norfolk hotel.

Lê, who had grown up in poverty with meager meals, couldn't bring himself to throw the slabs of leftover steak into the trash. He began stacking them into a pile.

The chef came over and told him to dump the steak in the garbage. If he didn't do his job correctly, she warned, "They'll fire you."

Lê panicked but not over the prospect of losing his job. "You mean they'll burn me?" he asked her.

"Honey, they won't burn you," she assured him. "You just won't have the job anymore."

In that moment, Lê learned the workplace meaning of "fire." He learned another thing: In America, "honey" was not just what you called a boyfriend or girlfriend.

His "village": Lê said he couldn't have made it through his first few years in America without a network of supporters, including a waitress at the Holiday Inn restaurant who'd always give him 10 percent of her tips.

Others who helped him included:

The Hoy family - Lê met the Hoys at the restaurant, where they had brunch after church every Sunday. Luther Hoy ran his family's construction business in Norfolk. Barbara was active in their church's efforts to resettle Vietnamese refugees. She asked Lê to help act as a translator for one of the families.

The relationship with the Hoys blossomed. "One day, she told me, 'We prayed about it, and God wants us to take you in.'" He spent the next six months living with them in their home in Talbot Park.

Lê taught their three sons martial arts; they taught him how to crab. He introduced Barbara to instant noodles; she introduced him to sandwiches.

The Hoys did far more than expand his palate. Luther Hoy volunteered to be Lê's legal guardian, allowing him to qualify for in-state tuition at Old Dominion University.

When Lê made the dean's list his first semester, with four A's and one B, Barbara Hoy explained to him what that meant. "And then she called her parents; she told everybody. She was very proud of me."

Jeannine Hammond: Jeannine Hammond: The manager of ODU's accounting department befriended Lê from the start.

"She assigned a student to take me around to classes," Lê said. Most important, she arranged a tuition deferment for Lê so he could begin courses while he waited for his Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, or BEOG. Hammond even introduced him to a car dealer, who sold Lê a used Plymouth Duster.

"She truly tried to help me start going to ODU as soon as possible, and that timing was very important to me," Lê said.

Steve Atiyah: The faculty member who made the most lasting impact wasn't in Lê's department. Lê majored in computer science, but he became close to Steve Atiyah after he took one of his math classes.

"Steve knew about my situation, the fact that I had to work so hard," Lê said. "He realized that my life was difficult, that it was tough for a kid with nobody around."

Near the end of Lê's college career, he had three incompletes. Lê said Atiyah went out of his way to persuade the faculty members in those courses to permit him to take the finals. Lê got two B's and one C in those classes.

"He didn't have to do that," Lê said. "I'm sure I would have been able to graduate, but I'd have to live with those F's if it wasn't for Steve."

Atiyah, Lê said, "was very happy for me when I finally got enough semester credits to graduate. He said, 'I'll buy you a drink.'"

To honor Atiyah, Lê and his wife, KT, dedicated the element platinum to him in the Elements of Giving periodic table in the lobby of the Chemistry Building. The inscription reads: "A truly dedicated teacher and mentor."

Atiyah, an assistant professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics, said: "I really liked him from the day I met him. He was a good kid that you couldn't get angry with, and he was anxious to get his degree. Michael always projected an aura of happiness."

Atiyah said Lê is in regular contact with him. "I feel he's almost a son," Atiyah said. "Michael is an exceptional human being. You can't help but admire him for his tenacity and perseverance and hard work to become what he is now."