Fairfax School Administrator and Human Rights Activist Drowned in Bangkok, Thailand
By Jackie Bong-Wright
“Cuong Nguyen was a dedicated, tenacious, compassionate force in our community and country. He was the most ethical person I have ever known!” exclaimed Elaine Bausch, Coordinator of the Adult English As A Second Language (ESL) program at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). Speaking at Cuong’s funeral at Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home January 31, Baush, who supervised Cuong’s work for over 20 years, several times broke into tears.
Cuong’s death by drowning on January 13 in Bangkok, where he had gone to spend the Lunar New Year, caused consternation in the Vietnamese community across the United States. He is survived by Phung Anh, his wife, and Christine Le Co, a grown daughter.
A Force in the School System
Cuong’s long career in Fairfax education was considered exemplary by those who worked with him. “Cuong came to be known as a model throughout the nation and the international TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) field,” according to Ms. Baush. “He recognized the need, wrote proposals, unearthed funding sources, and increased adult learning number from 300 in 1981 to 17,000 in 1992 at 24 sites. He designed a tuition system that enabled more needy students to afford the classes they wanted in order to become self-reliant and advance in their career.”
Baush concluded, “He used numbers as fluently as words, and managed a $2 million budget as easily as one of $200,000. He not only saw problems as opportunities, but could come up with solutions that usually took others longer to perceive. Cuong was generous with his time, his skills, his knowledge, his love and his life. I feel a better person for having known him.”
Others agreed. Hang Trinh, a co-worker at FCPS, said Cuong had always set high standards for himself and helped others overcome mediocrity. Dr. Bonnie Moore, head of Fairfax schools, recognized Cuong as instrumental in making translated documents and interpretation services available in schools and from other County services. As a tribute, she has asked the Fairfax School Board to name a large, new, multi-purpose room at Plum Center, the Nguyen Hall.
A Full Life of Service
Cuong’s life away from the workplace was also full and varied, and included projects to serve the immigrant community. He initiated the Casas Citizenship Project, which administered over 4,000 citizenship exams for the Immigration and Naturalization Service between 1994 and 1998. He helped organize the Vietnamese Olympics in North America at the University of Maryland in 1987; it attracted a thousand athletes from all over the U.S. and drew some 20,000 spectators.
Cuong was also a human rights activist. In 1984, he worked to change the death sentence of two Vietnamese Buddhist monks to a 20-year prison term. Cuong himself had been imprisoned for four years after the North Vietnamese Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. That experience led him to fight for the exploited and for those with no voice to express themselves and no vote to cast.
He, Tran Tu Thanh, a former political prisoner, and other like-minded friends founded the Vietnam Helsinki Committee, which published full reports in the early 1990s of religious violations in Vietnam. He helped mount an international conference at George Washington University attended by Harry Wu and Nina Shea, two prominent Chinese dissidents. He worked with respected Congressmen Frank Wolf and Chris Smith on human rights issues on Capitol Hill.
Recently, Cuong had broadened his scope by appearing on the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTN), where he interviewed prominent figures like former Ambassador to Washington Bui Diem and Rufus Phillips, author of Why Vietnam Matters.
Was Poem a Premonition?
Cuong’s funeral was attended by over 200 relatives, classmates, colleagues and friends. Community leaders representing 22 religious, social, cultural, educational, media, military, and political organizations eulogized Cuong for his efforts in partnering with them to help turn refugees into successful citizens.
His high school classmates, the Chu Van An Alumni, came from across the country to reminisce about his accomplishments as a bright, active student and role model. Earlier in the year, Cuong had e-mailed them a poem entitled, “To Those I Love and Those Who Love Me,” which his friends now saw as a premonition of his final departure. It said in part:
When I am gone, release me, let me go
I have so many things to see and do
You mustn’t tie yourself to me with tears
Be happy that we had so many years
Cuong’s widow, Phung Anh, told friends she had not wanted her husband to travel so far away during the new year season. She wrote these verses:
I begged, I cried
What if you died?
The sun would mourn you
The cold earth would feel sorrow
On the very day of the Lunar New Year of the Ox, while thousands rejoiced, some 30 friends of Cuong, including his 90-year old uncle, Huynh Thanh Hung, former Chairman of the Vietnamese Senior Association, went to Dulles airport to receive Cuong’s ashes. Dressed in a white mourning garment, Phung Anh received the precious urn containing Cuong’s remains from the hands of his two brothers, Trong and Tin. They had spent two weeks in Bangkok to assure a proper autopsy, finalize the necessary paperwork, and bring home their brother, an extraordinary man regarded as a hero by many.
Thu Van, a very dear friend of Cuong, said that, like “Doctors Without Borders” or “Journalists Without Borders,” Cuong was a “Friend Without Borders” who sailed through time and space to fend for the needy and the oppressed.