After years of bloody conflict, the Vietnam war was coming to an end. With communist forces poised to overrun Saigon, the capital city plunged into a final spasm of chaos as helicopters ferried the last lucky few to freedom. Lan Nguyen, then 14 years old, was not one of the lucky ones.
Nguyen knew the future did not bode well. Her father was imprisoned in a North Vietnamese POW camp, and the impending collapse of South Vietnam was certain to bring hardship for the family. Nguyen, her mother and six siblings decided to leave Saigon and make a break for freedom under cover of darkness. They escaped aboard a series of Vietnamese and U.S. navy and cargo ships and started a months-long odyssey that took them to the Philippines and multiple refugee camps from Guam to Florida and Arkansas, and finally to Fairhope, Alabama.
Fairhope, a small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, was aptly named for a refugee family looking for a toehold in a new world. "During this difficult time, the people of this community in the Deep South opened their arms and embraced us into their town, their families and their lives," Nguyen says today. "These individuals' attitudes and actions created a debt I cannot repay regardless of how much I give." During that fall of 1975, she pledged to honor a long-held family practice of helping others and vowed to give back as much as she could to the people and nation that had given her hope and much, much more.
She kept her promise through years of community service and pro bono legal work following her graduation from the University of Houston Law Center in 1984. The distinguished alumna, who already peppers her office walls with numerous awards of distinction, will soon add another: this summer, she will be honored as one of five recipients of the 2010 Pro Bono Publico Award from the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.
"I was raised with a philosophy that volunteerism is an obligation and not a choice," she says by way of explaining her tireless work with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, Houston Area Women's Center, Vietnamese charities and other organizations. "It simply is the professional, ethical and moral obligation that each of us assumes as a member of our chosen profession, of this nation and of humanity." Nguyen also founded the Vietnamese LegalLine, co-founded the annual Asian Will-a-Thon to help indigent members of the community with estate planning, and translates free legal handbooks from the Houston Bar Association into Vietnamese.
Nguyen and her attorney husband, Bruce Shortt, are the principals in Shortt & Nguyen P.C., a successful practice specializing in family and business law. The couple "home schools" their three sons, ages 7 to 14. The boys speak, read and write "only" five languages – Chinese, Spanish, German, English and Vietnamese – and carry on the family tradition of volunteerism by frequently serving as translators at various legal clinics. The commitment to community is no accident. "They know their skills and talents were endowed with the expressed expectation that they use them to serve others," their proud mother states with finality.
Reflecting on how her life has changed in the past 35 years, and what the future may hold, Nguyen says, "The opportunity to serve and be of service is plenty. My law degree has given me the skills and opportunity to be the bridge on which those who are most in need can access justice. It is a humble thought that you can be the instrument to deliver justice to others."
And what became of Nguyen's father, who had been captured and remained in a "re-education camp" after his family fled their homeland? "After 12 years as a POW, Dad was reunited with us in Houston after his own incredible journey," she says. "He still happily plays tennis and mahjong daily and serves as my mother's ‘official' chauffeur."
Another happy ending.