ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
A 32-year search that spanned two countries, two cultures and two families ended with bittersweet results last week in Florence.
From the time she was a teenager in the late 1960s, Germaine Vu’s dream has been to find Lawrence “Larry” Learned, the American boss she credits for giving her the hope and the tools to rise above the severe circumstances caused by the civil war in her homeland of Vietnam and to start a new life in the United States.
Last weekend her dream came as true as it possibly could.
Thanks to the Internet searching of Germaine’s oldest son, Scott, who immigrated with her to the United States in 1986, she was reunited with Virginia Learned, who had lived with her husband, Larry, in Vietnam for about 14 months during the four years he worked there with an American company.
To Germaine’s disappointment, she learned that Larry had died in 1988. But in reuniting with Virginia at her Carriage Manor apartment in Florence, Germaine satisfied the debt she felt in her heart for so many years.
“I’m here to pay my respects to Virginia and her family,” she said. “I’m in America right now because of Larry. He is a nice man. He is a great man. I honor him.”
“I feel honored because she came to see me,” Virginia said, reaching for Germaine’s hand. “The fact that she cares so deeply and that she remembers us after all those many years, it is an honor to have her here.”
* * *
Larry Learned first came to Vung Tau, South Vietnam, in 1966 under contract with Pacific Architect & Engineers, an American company that repacked and recrated supplies that arrived in the country for the U.S. troops.
Larry ran the operation in Vung Tau, located some 125 kilometers from Saigon. As the manager, he hired local people to join his work crew, including a 16-year-old girl named Germaine, who was needing a way to support her mother and two younger brothers after the death of her father three years earlier.
Germaine started as a clerk-typist and later became Larry’s secretary.
“Larry was a very good man and a very good boss,” she said. “He taught me everything for my job, my career, for my attitude and everything else. He treated me not like a boss, but like he’s my father.”
One thing she never forgot was the constant encouragement he offered.
“My job, as an Asian girl, was very difficult for me,” she said. “When he told me to do something, I always answered him, ‘I cannot do it; it’s too difficult for me.’ And he’d usually say, ‘Did you try?'”
“So that’s what I learned from him,” she added. “I always try my best now.”
Learned’s generosity extended not only to Germaine, but to others in her village. During his stay there, he salvaged wood from the crates they disassembled and, rather than burn it, as had been the practice, he got it into the hands of the local people so they could replace their thatched houses with durable ones.
“He helped a lot of poor people who didn’t have a house,” Germaine said. “He taught them how to raise pigs and chickens so they’d have food to eat.”
Sometimes he bent the rules for the sake of someone in need. Even though it went against Vietnamese culture for a woman to drive, Germaine said Learned hired a woman to run his forklift-after he found out the woman’s husband beat her and she was struggling to financially support her children.
On another occasion, he noticed a woman on the street who could not walk, hear or talk. Because of Larry’s intervention, she received treatment that enabled her to take walks again, she could hear with the help of a hearing aid, and she learned to speak via sign language.
“In all of Lawrence’s letters to me while he was over there, his devotion to the Vietnamese people was incredible,” Virginia said.
Meanwhile, Germaine blossomed under Larry’s tutelage, but her situation was never easy.
“Larry always told me, ‘You work hard, but where do you put all your money?'” she said. “I told him I keep everything for my mom. That’s my culture because I still have two younger brothers.”
Her culture also embedded deep within her a sense of obligation when the Learned family returned to the United States in 1970.
“If someone does something good to us and is friendly to us, we have to remember that the rest of our lives,” she said. “I will remember him always.”
* * *
It took 10 hard years after the Learneds left Vietnam for Germaine to find her way to the United States. Her association with an American company didn’t make it easy for her when the communists took over in 1975.
“My parents had more than one house, and we usually rented the second one out,” she said. “But we couldn’t have that anymore. They allowed only one family only one house. The rest, they said, did not belong to us because that money had come from Americans. So they took away the other house.”
To meet their daily needs, Germaine and her mother and brothers depended on the money she had saved while working for Larry Learned.
“My mother had to go to the black market to sell whatever we she had to survive those 10 years,” she said. “Even when you would buy the food, they would ask you, ‘Why do you have the money for good food?'”
Germaine and her family, like other Vietnamese citizens, lost most of their rights and freedoms.
“They come into your house anytime they want,” she said. “They don’t need to knock on the door like before. They just go straight from the front to the back. Nothing’s private.”
At the urging of her mother, and with the help of the American Embassy in Thailand, Germaine finally escaped Vietnam in 1986. She and her son were allowed to take only $200 with them.
“I still have my mom and two younger brothers there,” she said. “Every year I’m working, I send money to them. My mom is 81 years old. My older brother is helping her. She’s too old to come to this country, so they’re still there.
“I don’t have a chance to go back because I worry so much,” she added. “I don’t trust the communists because we tried so hard to get out of the country and get to freedom.”
* * *
But getting to America was only half the battle for Germaine. Confronting a new culture and being immersed in a relatively new language was difficult for her. She also discovered that, unlike Larry, some Americans discriminated against people of other races.
Germaine eventually settled in Chicago, where she met Eric, her future husband.
“I came to Illinois and was feeling very lonely, but I listened to what my mom told me,” Germaine said.
“She told me, ‘When you get to the United States, you don’t need to marry a rich person. You need to marry someone with a very good heart who knows how to love you and take care of you. Because if you come to this country, you will build over there with your two bare hands and with your heart.'”
Germaine received welfare funding initially, but knew she wanted to earn her own way in this new country, even if it meant looking for housekeeping jobs.
It was Eric who lifted her sights.
“He said you have experience in Vietnam and you worked with an American company, why are you looking for housekeeping? Why don’t you try for a job in a bank? They need Asian people who know more languages and can help your people to open accounts.”
She landed a job with the Bank of Chicago as a teller to work with Asian clientele.
A year later, Germaine and Eric were married. Today they live in Lowell, Mass., where they own a nice home and she works at the department of motor vehicles.
Scott, who will be 28 this month, is a sergeant in the Marines. Another son, Matt, who just turned 25, is a regional manager of a cell phone company, and their youngest son Sidney, almost 13, is an accomplished pianist.
“I think she has done a miraculous job of adjusting to the United States,” Virginia said.
“She worked hard and she’s worked her way up in a wonderful job and has three wonderful sons. Lawrence would be so proud to know she has achieved so much and has done so well.”
* * *
The phone call came around 8 o’clock in the morning. Virginia was awake but still in bed.
It was the Fourth of July, a day Virginia calls “a firecracker of a day for me.”
She thought at first the caller was a telemarketer, but the voice at the other end introduced herself as Dzung and said she was looking for a Virginia Learned.
“I said, ‘I don’t believe it,'” Virginia said. “I said, ‘Is it really you?’ and she yes.
“I think we probably both cried,” Virginia added. “I was so excited my mind went into orbit. She said, ‘I must come see you.'”
For Germaine, the call culminated three decades of wanting to see the family that had meant so much to her.
“I missed Larry, I missed Virginia, I missed their family,” Germaine said. “But I couldn’t find them because we were so busy with life, trying to survive. I had to deal with everything of living in a new country.”
Germaine had initiated some searches, including one through her office at the DMV, but to no avail. Finally, Scott, with the help of a friend who used some of the resources available to the military, found Virginia’s name, address and phone number in Florence.
With the connection made, Germaine immediately told her bosses in Lowell that she wanted vacation time to make a pilgrimage to Kansas.
“I always mentioned (Larry) at every job I worked at in the United States because of the way he treated me,” she said. “I told my boss I have to make a trip to go see them and pay my respects for all they did for my family, my people, and my country.”
Germaine and her family drove across the country, arrived in Florence Aug. 28, and stayed through the following Tuesday.
“The time has gone by so rapidly and we’ve talked ourselves to death,” Virginia said.
A highlight for Germaine and Virginia was looking through the photo albums Larry and Virginia had kept of their time in Vietnam. That was especially meaningful for Germaine because the communists destroyed all her old photos during the takeover.
Among the memorabilia, Germaine found a letter she had written to Larry in 1968, when he had returned home briefly for a vacation. In the letter she begged him to come back and help her people.
“He had told me he read that letter over and over again and that was why he had decided to come back and help my people,” Germaine said.
“At the time, I was just a teenager and thought he said that just to make me feel good. But then I found that same letter in the album. I cried when I saw it.”
* * *
Last Monday, Germaine and her family bought flowers in Marion and drove together with Virginia to Larry’s grave at the Dunlap Cemetery in Rose Hill.
“I talked to him there,” Germaine said. “I said, ‘I’m here, and even though you’re not here, you are still listening to what I’m saying. I come here to pay my respects.’
“I still miss him a lot.”
Virginia said she wishes the pair could have reconnected in 1986, when Germaine first came to the United States and Larry was still alive.
“We’re grieving because he never knew what happened to her,” Virginia said.
“At the time we left Vietnam, we worried about her. And he worried about all the people who worked for him because when the communists came in and Saigon fell, we knew what the situation was like. We didn’t think we would ever, ever see or hear from them again.
“That’s why, when she called me, I couldn’t believe it,” she added. “It still seems like a dream that she, out of the whole United States, found me in Florence, Kan.”
Germaine and Virginia intend to keep the lines of communication open from now on. The e-mails are going to fly back and forth and they hope for occasional visits.
“We’re going to keep in very close touch,” Virginia said. “Now that she has found me and I have found her family, they’re part of my family, too, now.
“That’s the way Lawrence would want it.”