The “gracious and tenacious” Jo Moore received a very special guest at the High Country Inn earlier this month.
Before Jo moved to Orofino in 1981 and became a beloved fixture of this community, she was an elementary school teacher and principal of a Catholic school in Lubbock, Texas. She has taught and touched the lives of thousands of students over the years. Like most dedicated teachers, Jo has wondered about her former students. What has become of them? Did she make a difference for them in the relatively short time they had together as teacher and student? The answer for Jo is a resounding YES!
Jo will forever remember the day she received the answer to her unvoiced questions, for it was on Ash Wednesday of this year when she answered an unexpected phone call from a number in Texas.
Upon confirming to the unknown caller that she was in fact the Jo Moore who had once taught the sixth grade and served as the principal for St. Elizabeth’s Catholic School in Lubbock, Texas, Jo heard a gasp, and then the voice on the other end (which Jo did not recognize) said, “I’ve found you!”
The caller turned out to be a former student whom Jo had taught 45 years ago. The woman told Jo that she had been searching for Jo for years simply to tell her “thank you” for the difference that she made in one little girl’s life decades ago.
It had been the end of the school year in May of 1977 since Jo Moore and Minh-Hien Nguyen (pronounced Min-Hin Win) have last seen or talked to each other. Jo was Minh-Hien’s beloved sixth grade teacher at St. Elizabeth’s.
The two first met in the summer of 1975 when Minh-Hien was nine and a half years old and a refugee who had fled with her father and three of four older brothers from South Vietnam. The details of fleeing Vietnam remain harrowing and vivid.
A flight to remember
Minh-Hien recalled that her father informed her one morning in April 1975 that she would not be going to school that day. He asked her brothers and her to pack some of their favorite clothes because they would be going to the Saigon airport for a long trip. Minh-Hien was worried that her mother was still stuck in Danang, Vietnam (their home town) but her father reassured her that mom would meet them at the Saigon airport. That turned out to be a lie borne out of necessity.
In order to keep his children safe and have their full cooperation in attempting to leave the country, Minh-Hien’s father refrained from telling the children until they were at the airport that their mother had not been able to escape from Danang (which had already fallen to the communists) and that they would have to leave her behind in their flight to safety. It was a gut-wrenching decision that he had to make but their lives were at stake. Seven years would pass before the family was reunited with their mother and learn of her own miraculous journey of survival but that is a whole another story in itself.
Minh-Hien shared that her family wore a hefty price tag for their lives. Her family was Catholic; her grandparents were prominent members of the community; her father was the Deputy Director of the local tax office in Danang; and her mother worked at the U.S. Consulate. The communists would have sent them to a “re-education camp,” which was a euphemism for hard labor camp where political prisoners were sent to die. So to escape almost certain death, the family had to flee the country before the communist takeover.
“When the U.S. government decided to evacuate their employees which included Vietnamese employees and their families, we were very fortunate.”
The family was able to leave because of her mother’s position as an administrative assistant at the U.S. Consulate. They left with two suitcases and $200 in her father’s pocket. That was the entirety of their belongings that they would be taking with them.
Minh-Hien recalled sleeping overnight on the bare ground next to a latrine at the airport and described boarding the military cargo plane at the airport, “We were shepherded like cattle into the middle of the huge plane and asked to sit down.” They huddled together on the floor of the cargo plane because there were no seats.
Although Minh-Hien could not recall which branch of the U.S. military was there, she did note that the soldiers had large guns at the ready because they were afraid the Vietnamese military would try to stop the plane from leaving, as it was not an authorized flight.
The family (minus mom) was evacuated from Saigon and joined the first wave of Vietnamese refugees on the island of Guam. They lived in a tent city erected by Navy, Army, Marines, and civilian volunteers. The family was then moved to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, a military base that was converted temporarily into a processing center used for sheltering and relocating Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees after the wars.
At Fort Chaffee, refugees were given medical screenings, introduced to sponsors, and then resettled in various locations of the United States. Minh-Hien and her family lived in military barracks on the base with thousands of other refugees until they were granted permission to leave and start their lives over.
Beginning a new life
They flew to Texas in the summer of 1975 to join the one single family member who was already living in the U.S., Minh-Hien’s oldest brother who had left South Vietnam in 1973 to attend college at Texas Tech in Lubbock. They would live with him in his small apartment close to the university and rebuild their lives.
Minh-Hien spoke no English upon her arrival, but her father urged her and her older brothers to learn as much English as they could during that summer before starting school that fall. There was a public elementary school nearby, where the family had assumed Minh-Hien would attend.
“By the grace of God, and the efforts of some very generous families from the local church,” Minh-Hien said she was given the gift of attending St. Elizabeth’s, where Jo Moore was the principal and sixth-grade teacher.
Jo said that they had never had a non-English speaking student at the school and did not quite know what to do. Teaching English as a second language (ESL) was not a known thing in 1975, and certainly no one at St. Elizabeth’s spoke Vietnamese. But Jo charged ahead as Jo always did. She placed Minh-Hien into the fourth grade under the care of Mrs. Margaret Martin so that Minh-Hien could learn English and kept tabs on how Minh-Hien was integrating. Minh-Hien, on the other hand, was not pleased at first to be repeating the fourth grade, even though she was still learning English.
She was well-aware that the beginning readers from which she was taught separately from the other kids during reading time were intended for first graders, but she settled in with the support and encouragement of her teachers and worked diligently to catch up on the language. And before long, she loved school! By the end of the first school year at St. Elizabeth’s, she was in the advanced reading group in her class.
“Fourth and sixth grade at St. Elizabeth’s brings back wonderful memories,” recounted Minh-Hien. “I especially remember reading time after lunch. Jo was the best storyteller. She would make the characters in the stories come alive as she read The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time.”
“When I think about it,” said Minh-Hien as the tears well up in her eyes, “they were life changing, and I mean they literally transformed my life. I had been ripped from my mom and moved half-way around the world to end up in Lubbock, Texas. It was all so different. Between Jo and my fourth grade teacher, they loved me, took care of me, taught me in a nurturing environment, helped me to adapt to a foreign country, and learn a new language to attend school.”
“Without them, I don’t believe I would have had as ‘easy’ a path to navigate and grow up. When you’re a child you just do it, but I don’t think I was fully able to appreciate all the help and love I received until I was grown. As a child, you just don’t know, you don’t understand. Those two ladies meant everything to me, I wanted to find a way to reconnect.”
From fourth to sixth?
When asked how it happened that she skipped the fifth grade, both women had to laugh. Minh-Hien explained she essentially had to repeat the fourth grade to learn English first. “I was very proud, it was important to me to catch up, so towards the end of fourth grade I went in to talk to Mrs. Moore. I showed her my test scores and how well I had done on my report card. I’m not sure where I got the courage or the notion, but ultimately, I told Mrs. Moore, if I couldn’t go into the sixth grade, that I wasn’t coming back.” They burst out laughing at this point in the story.
Jo herself had skipped two grades to graduate high school early, so she empathized with the child. She decided to take a chance and agreed to let Minh-Hien skip fifth grade, but arranged for Margaret Martin to continue tutoring her student throughout the summer to make sure she learned what was needed to move forward.
Minh-Hien graduated from sixth grade at St. Elizabeth’s in May 1977, and with Jo’s assistance was enrolled in another Catholic school for Junior High so she could continue with a smaller classroom environment. It would be their last contact with each other until Ash Wednesday of 2022 but Jo’s faith in her student was not misplaced.
The journey ahead
Following Junior High, Minh-Hien attended a public high school and graduated Valedictorian of her class of about 600 students. Minh-Hien would go on to earn an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas, a Master’s degree in Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, and then a law degree from the University of Texas. She is currently the Legal Director for Intellectual Property at a multi-billion-dollar company.
She credits her success to having those first two years in the U.S. in a nurturing environment at St. Elizabeth’s where she received a solid educational foundation in English from some very caring and warm-hearted teachers.
Gracious and tenacious
Minh-Hien had been trying to locate her teachers from St. Elizabeth’s for years. “Periodically I would search for them but never found anything. There was no internet or the search tools that we have now. Then recently the search terms I entered brought up the article ‘The Gracious and Tenacious Jo Moore,’ written by Elizabeth Morgan in 2017. I read the article revealing she had lived and taught in Lubbock. I looked at the photograph that accompanied the article and thought, ‘That could be her!’”
Had the online article included all the photographs featured in the original publication of the Clearwater Tribune, Minh-Hien would have recognized the young Jo Moore and known for certain that she had finally succeeded in locating one of her beloved teachers. The article noted Jo ran “The High Country Inn” in northern Idaho so Minh-Hien looked up the website and found the number to the inn. She rehearsed how to describe to whoever might answer the phone to explain who she was and to ask if that person could relay a message to Jo.
It’s difficult to say who was more surprised when she called, but Minh-Hien confirmed she was shocked when Jo herself answered the phone. “I’ve found you!” exclaimed one very excited and emotional person. Jo said she thought she knew who it was but was in the middle of walking down to her inn and asked if she could call Minh-Hien back within a few minutes. Those minutes had to seem like an eternity.
When Jo got to her inn, she immediately called Minh-Hien back.
“Do you remember the little refugee student who attended St. Elizabeth’s School in 1975?” began Minh-Hien. “I’m that student. I’ve been looking for you and just wanted to thank you.” The two women cried, talked, laughed, cried again, and talked some more.
One chat led to another when Jo invited Minh-Hien and her husband to visit, and more great memories were made as they reminisced. Minh-Hien’s husband, Steve, is also an attorney and loves to fish, so Jo made sure he got to go fishing on the Dworshak Reservoir. The reunion between Jo and Minh-Hien was spectacular in so many ways and is the first of more visits to follow. They call each other their bonus mom and bonus daughter.
American as apple pie
Forty-five years after she parted ways with a refugee child, Jo learns that her former student has not just survived but thrived. “I’m as American as apple pie,” claims Minh-Hien, but there is that history of refugees and immigrants.
“When the press recently published photos of the Afghan people clinging to the planes as they lifted off the runway, I felt the trauma all over again, it was hauntingly familiar.
“I look back with mixed feelings. Without the end of the war and having been required to leave, I would have had a very difficult life.
“I was afforded a life here. It is a wonderful life, and the United States is a wonderful country. This country took me in and saved my life. It opened up a whole world of opportunities for me. I feel like I could be the poster child for ‘The American Dream.’ It was a lot of hard work, and it wasn’t handed to me, but I had help along the way.” Minh-Hien then gestured at Jo to indicate that Jo is one of the people who helped her. That kindness has never been forgotten.
Kindness is key
“All the little kindnesses really make a difference. For me, I’m not sure how to explain the whole immigration experience, except I feel we should extend our hand and help others, because when you pay it forward, others will thrive. If everyone can develop a better life, then we’re all the better for it, and it contributes to a kinder society.
Kindness and compassion are key, and there are kind people everywhere.” Look no further than the tenacious, gracious, and kind-hearted Jo Moore.