Betty Tisdale became known as the “Angel of Saigon” after she helped airlift 219 orphans from Vietnam in the days before the fall of Saigon. She went on to support orphans and at-risk children around the world through her nonprofit, Helping and Loving Orphans.
Betty Tisdale wouldn’t take no for an answer.
As the well-connected secretary to U.S. Sen.Jacob Javits of New York, she spent the 1960s raising money for and volunteering at An Lac Orphanage in Vietnam. In 1975, with the fall of Saigon imminent, she resolved to get as many of the orphans out of the war zone as she could.
“I had no idea how I was going to do it, where I was going to put them. I had to find planes, a place for them, find parents for them,” she later told ABC News. She famously called the Secretary of the U.S. Army to ask for help. When he didn’t return her call, she called his mother.
Because of her efforts, 219 children were airlifted to Fort Benning, Ga., where the Army secretary had ordered a school building converted to a nursery. Within a month, all the children were adopted by American families.
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The story of the dramatic rescue was told in the 1980 TV movie “The Children of An Lac,” with Shirley Jones playing Mrs. Tisdale.
“She could pull more strings and get more things done. She would call up anybody and convince them of doing something they probably hadn’t been thinking about doing,” said Jack Fitterer, longtime CEO of the Pacific Institute in Seattle, the nonprofit where Mrs. Tisdale worked in the decade before she retired.
Mrs. Tisdale died in her Seattle home on Aug. 19, a month shy of her 93rd birthday. A private memorial service will be held Saturday on Queen Anne.
Mrs. Tisdale’s life work was inspired by Tom Dooley, a doctor and humanitarian, who opened remote medical clinics in Vietnam and Laos and founded the An Lac Orphanage. It was at the orphanage where Mrs. Tisdale met her husband, an Army doctor, Patrick Tisdale. They married in 1969.
He was a widower with five boys between the ages of 5 and 12. Over the next several years, the couple adopted five girls from the orphanage and raised their family in Columbus, Ga., where Dr. Tisdale opened a pediatrics practice and his wife worked as office manager.
Their oldest son, Patrick Tisdale Jr., recalled meeting his new mother less than a year after his own mother had died, a time when he said he was numb and disoriented.
“There was something hypnotic about her voice, her touch, her manner,” he said. “I would see it over the years when she met other orphans. It was a very warm relationship immediately.”
He and his sisters said Mrs. Tisdale understood what it was to be an orphan: Her father had died when she was young, and when she was about 10 her mother had to be institutionalized with tuberculosis. She and her three sisters were separated and sent to live with relatives.
Mrs. Tisdale’s children said that over the years, as the rescued An Lac orphans grew up, many sought her out. With her organizational skills and excellent memory, they said, she had no trouble recalling their stories.
“She always remembered who they were, the family that adopted them. The reunions were always emotional,” said her daughter Mai Lara Tisdale.
In 2000, after her own family was raised, Mrs. Tisdale founded Helping and Loving Orphans (HALO), which collected funds and supplies for orphanages and at-risk children in Vietnam, Colombia, Afghanistan, Mexico and Haiti. She partnered with existing organizations, local governments and social-service agencies to provide education, health care and job training to the children.
Her own children said she managed to get even office supplies and airfare for the organization donated, so 99.9 percent of the money she raised went to the children.
“She was a force to be reckoned with,” said her daughter Lien Titus.
Mrs. Tisdale is survived by her 10 children: Patrick Jr., of Washington, D.C.; Dan, of Spokane; Sean and Neal, of Atlanta; James, of Burbank, Calif.; Xuan Fields, of Kapolei, Hawaii; Lien Titus, of Shoreline; Mai Lara Tisdale, of New York City; Thuvan DeBellis, of Jacksonville, Fla.; Kim Lan Tisdale, of Seattle, and 13 grandchildren.
She was preceded in death by her husband, Patrick. The family asks that memorials be made to HALO through www.bettytisdale.com.