Debater inspired by Tien Windauer's escape from ‘Nam
It's a classic story of the American dream come true. When Tien Windauer was 12 years old, he left his family on a dark New Year's night in 1981 and got on a boat with 49 other desperately poor children to flee his home country of Vietnam.
"See ya later," he told his father, Cuoc Pham, as he boarded the boat.
Little did he know he wouldn't speak with his father for nine years.
The boat floated down the Mekong River, evading authorities of the communist government. The river was a foul place. In post-war Vietnam, death was common, and it wasn't unusual to see several bodies floating in its waters everyday. A full 25 percent of the people who tried to flee the country died. At the time, they were known as "boat people."
But Tien and his boat eventually made it to the Gulf of Thailand, where the Malaysian Coast Guard intercepted them. Tien was taken to Malaysia and placed in the Kalaumb concentration camp. He lived there for two years until he was adopted by Columbia Falls residents Dr. Bob and Judy Windauer through the Lutheran Social Service organization.
When he was in the airport, Windauer wore a big tag around his neck that read "Columbia Falls, Montana" so volunteers would know which plane to put him on. He knew no English, but when he was in Hawaii, he found a Vietnamese tourist who spoke English and told Tien his destination.
There would be mountains and snow - a far cry from the heat and humidity of Vietnam. His first night in his Columbia Falls bed with his new family was surreal. He had never slept in a bed like that before. He wondered where the mosquito netting was.
The Windauers had three children of their own - Dave, Mike and Melissa. Dave was the same age as Tien, and they got along well. Slowly but surely, the Vietnamese boy adjusted to life in Montana. He became active in sports, graduated from high school, worked for the Forest Service fighting fires and went on to become a successful businessman in Columbia Falls, starting Tien's Restaurant in 2002. He has a wife, Maureen, and four children, Bailey, Mailee, Riley and Brendan.
His compelling tale recently drew accolades for sophomore Baylee Brinton. A member of the Columbia Falls speech and debate team, Brinton tells Windauer's story in the expository speech category. Brinton's speech garnered her first place in the first two meets - even against tough AA opponents.
The Brinton family has been friends with the Windauers for several years now, and Brinton said she found Tien's story compelling.
"I thought his story was very inspirational," she said. "We would sit and talk, and he would tell us stories about life."
And so she put pen on paper and Windauer loaned her personal effects, like his concentration camp identification cards and photos from Vietnam when he was a youth.
He knows what it's like to go hungry, to have nothing. He tells his children, "See that starving child on television? I was one of those children."
Windauer also makes it a point to go to the junior high each year and tell his story to sixth graders - they're the same age he was when he left Vietnam.
"We're so fortunate. I'm blessed. My family is healthy," he said. "The work is the easy part. Work hard. Want a raise? Work extra hours."
Windauer was finally reunited with his family in 1990 and was able to visit Vietnam.
Now he talks to his father daily, and he's working on arranging a visa for one of his sisters to visit. Under communist rule, only one family member at a time can come to the U.S. He hopes to someday have his father visit the U.S.