An TonThat, 85, former diplomat who aided refugees in Boston
Many nights in the 1980s, the phone rang in An TonThat’s home at midnight or later, bringing news that a refugee family would arrive in a few hours at Logan Airport. As coordinator of resettlement for what was then the International Institute of Boston, Mr. An would head to the airport, often accompanied by one of his sons, to welcome the family to a new life in a new world that could hardly be more foreign.
Refugees often arrived from tropical climates and stepped into a Boston winter, unable to speak English and unprepared for the cold. Mr. An, who had been a diplomat in South Vietnam before emigrating after the fall of Saigon, could find them coats, crank high the thermostats in their apartments, and get them into classes, but he soon saw that some challenges were less easily addressed.
As part of his work, he was asked to find families whose success stories could be featured in local media, only to find that post-traumatic stress and other mental illness issues were hobbling their new lives.
“It became a kind of obsession with me,” Mr. An told the Globe in 2002. “Many times, I did take journalists to apartments occupied by newcomers. But sometimes not even six months later, the so-called ‘success stories’ were no longer success stories. I said [to institute officials], ‘One of these days, if I leave you, please do not be surprised.’ ”
Mr. An subsequently left to become director of the state Department of Public Health’s office of refugee and immigrant health and advocated for specialized services to help Boston’s Asian, Latino, and Haitian communities. He was 85 when he died of cancer Oct. 21 in his home in Pearland, Texas, where he had moved in retirement for the warmer climate.
Having formerly served as chief of protocol to the president of South Vietnam and as that country’s consul general to Burma, Mr. An had considerable diplomatic experience to draw from when he helped launch the Vietnamese American Community Center in Dorchester.
He had helped place many families in Dorchester as part of his work with the International Institute, which required more than just knowing which apartments were available. “Intergenerational conflict is something very serious with us,” he said in 2002, when the center was being constructed. “To build our community, we need both generations working together.”
While chairing the steering committee to create the center, Mr. An told the Globe he hoped to “devise programs that will help Vietnamese elders, but I will ask the young Vietnamese to help me, so we can be next to one another, so we can communicate.”
There were other obstacles to overcome as well. “He understood that the community is complicated with all the Vietnamese homeland’s politics. He was diplomatic in many ways, working with many community groups,” said his friend Hiep Chu, a leader of Boston’s Vietnamese community and a former executive director of the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development.
“I really respected him in many ways,” Chu added. “He was not about himself, which is something I admired. I learned so much from him.”
Mr. An was born in Da Nang, Vietnam, the son of Ton That Hoat and Nguyen Thi Khuyen.
He studied political science in Paris and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in South Vietnam in 1957, two years after graduating from college. For several years, he served as an embassy first secretary during postings in Bangkok, Paris, and London. Then he served for a couple of years in Saigon before becoming consul in what is now Myanmar.
Mr. An was chief of protocol to the president of South Vietnam from 1972 until 1975 and escaped that April during the fall of Saigon. First, he arranged for his wife, Nguyen Thi Thuy, and their children to go to Thailand. Then Mr. An “contacted a colleague at the American embassy who told him to go to a particular rooftop, and he was helicoptered out, as were many other ex-officials,” said his son, Nhan Paul TonThat of Marlborough.
Several weeks passed before they reconnected in Guam. Mr. An and his family went to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas before settling in Greater Boston and living for many years in Medford. They also began running Rendezvous, a restaurant near Harvard Square.
“It was almost like a sitcom, if you can imagine a Vietnamese family running a Greek pizza and grinder place in Harvard Square,” said his son John Chan TonThat of Middleton. “Then we eventually converted it over to a Vietnamese restaurant.”
The restaurant “really was the footing for us in the family to establish ourselves here,” he said, and showed that his father “was a person who was willing to start over and do just about anything to provide.”
As his father began working with the International Institute to resettle refugees and then with the Department of Public Health, he added, “the thing that he really embodied was the notion that he was there to serve.”
While Mr. An was director of the office of refugee and immigrant health, he advocated for regulations that require translation services in hospitals. While growing up, before he switched to political science, Mr. An had hoped to study medicine and “coming here gave him an opportunity to do what he really wanted, which was to help people,” said his daughter, Theresa Phuong Thao Ton of Dedham.
Mr. An had always wanted his children to learn Vietnamese, she said, adding that “he never really insisted or forced us to learn what we wouldn’t want to learn, but he made things available to us.”
A lover of language, Mr. An spoke Vietnamese, French, and English and could read Chinese. “At home, he tried to introduce us to Vietnamese poems and encouraged us to memorize and recite them,” his daughter said. “He hoped language would stick in our minds and come back to us.”
In addition to his three children, Mr. An, whose first marriage ended in divorce, leaves his wife, Hong, of Pearland, Texas; four half-siblings, Ton-Nu Liên-Trì and Thu Cúc Ton-Nu Duong of the Netherlands, and Ton-That Nghia and Ton-That Tuâ’n of France; and five grandchildren.
Traditional Buddhist ceremonies were held Friday and Saturday in the Chapel of Eternal Peace at Forest Park in Houston.
Mr. An was “a person of a great sense of dignity and duty. That defines his life, really,” Paul said. “He was passionate, but a kind of reserved person. He shared his enthusiasm with a great deal of discretion, but was very warm.”
John added that their father “didn’t like to call attention to anything he did. He was a quiet advocate — strong-willed, I might add, but very quiet, which I think was part of his years in diplomatic circles. For him, it wasn’t just what you do, it was just important how you did it — how messages were conveyed, how they were received. He loathed attention. That just wasn’t his style.”