I meet some remarkable people in my travels and sometimes get to write songs about them. Such was the case this past weekend, as I had a small part in celebrating the life and work of Mrs. Betty Tisdale. I’m grateful to good friend Chuck Hasty for introducing me to her and her work, and for asking me to write a song in her honor.
Here’s the short version of Betty’s story (www.bettytisdale.com).
In the early 1960’s, she began traveling to Vietnam to work at an orphanage called An Lac, near Saigon. She had been at least partially inspired to do so by her reading of a book entitled Deliver Us From Evil, by Dr. Tom Dooley, a physician who also worked with the orphanage. Mrs. Tisdale raised financial and other support for the orphanage and grew, not surprisingly, to deeply love and care for the children over the years that she visited there. The poverty and difficulty of their lives left them vulnerable, endangered, and powerless. They were the smallest victims of the war in Vietnam.
Fast forward to 1975, during the final days of the conflict. When it became obvious that Saigon and the south would fall to the North Vietnamese, it also became obvious that the orphanage would be jeopardized and the lives of the children would be very much threatened. Enter Betty Tisdale. With enormous energy, slight of hand, and pure tenacity, she was able, in part through some political connections, to arrange the use of military aircraft to remove 219 orphans, all under 10 years of age, from the country. She brought them to Columbus, Georgia (where I grew up) and, within a month, had placed all of the children with adoptive families around the US. Days after the rescue, Saigon fell, in images that many of us probably still recall from the nightly news.
Fast forward again, to this past weekend. Jason Robertson (www.ricetogrits.com), one of those 219 orphans, spearheaded a reunion of his fellow An Lac comrades and brought 60 of them together, once again in Columbus, to thank Betty and relive some of their stories together. On Saturday, an evening banquet was held at which a number of folks spoke and Betty participated in a Q&A session. Remarkable stories.
She is now 88 years old and brimming with life and still busy with good work. She runs an organization called HALO (Helping and Loving Orphans) and mentioned, in the course of the evening, upcoming trips to Haiti, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. She is quite simply delightful, inspiring, angelic.
Here are the words to the song that I sang on Saturday. (I hope that, at some future time, we’ll be able to put up a video of the song, with some pictures from the An Lac story, on the blog.)
THE ANGEL OF SAIGON
She saw children who frightened, who were crying and alone,
Tiny victims of the fighting, with no place to call their home,
She saw children without mothers, and it shook her to the core,
This angel in the shadows of the war.
Sometimes angels hide their haloes, and they fly on borrowed,
Face their fear to teach the children, how to play and how to sing,
Some would say that she was crazy, Love just laughed and carried on,
Until her little ones were safely home.
Call her hero, call her holy, call her mother,
With 219 children in her arms
Call her Betty, simply Betty
To us she is the Angel of Saigon.
Change some diapers, forge some papers, hardly seems an angel’s job,
She is willing, gladly able, it is all the work of God,
Board the bus and dodge the danger, load them up and let them fly
Get the children, safely to the other side.
Sometimes Jesus, lives among us,
Small and weak, the least of these,
Sometimes Jesus is an orphan,
With a face Vietnamese.
So we gather just to bless you, to remember all you’ve done,
To surround you with affection, of these daughters and these sons,
And in future generations, we will pass the story down,
Of how you brought us safely to this town.
You are hero, you are holy, you are mother,
With 219 children of your own,
Thank you Betty, thank you Betty,
We thank you our sweet angel of Saigon.