Internationally recognized humanitarian visits Cabrini

By Kelly Finlan
December 6, 2001

Thick fog and rain could not keep Betty Tisdale from her audience, much like war and financial constraints can not keep her from her “babies” in Vietnam and all over the world. She is the founder of Helping And Loving Orphans and the driving force behind Operation Baby Lift during the Vietnam War. Cabrini College welcomed Tisdale to the mansion Thursday, Nov. 29th.

Accompanied by one of her “babies,” Jeffrey Nguyen Eckert, Tisdale described a story of selflessness and compassion. Operation Baby Lift started with the ideals of Dr. Tom Dooley (1927-1961), a Navy medical officer, who, after witnessing the suffering of 600,000 North Vietnamese refugees, established several small clinics and hospitals in South Vietnam. A young secretary, then working for US Steel, read his book and was called to action. Tisdale started typing responses to Dooley’s bottomless pit of mail. From there she had a hand in everything from fund raising to teaching simple American songs.

After the death of Dooley in 1961, Tisdale became the primary financial resource for An Lac orphanage in Saigon. An Lac was founded by Madame Ngai, an affluent North Vietnamese refugee who, after the death of her husband, fled to South Vietnam, stopping only to pick up the children along the way who had been orphaned by the war. There were 400 children of all ages at An Lac when Tisdale arrived. They were unusually small, malnourished and under-supplied. An Lac become her crusade.

Tisdale, then the personal secretary of Senator Jacob Javits, took it upon herself to fund An Lac. Senator Javits’ connections allowed her to raise enough money to provide An Lac with the milk and other supplies it needed. But with the Vietcong closing in on Saigon, Tisdale knew there was a new task at hand-getting the orphans out of Vietnam.

Operation Baby Lift was a multi-task operation. Each child needed a U.S. visa and a birth certificate, as well as a safe ride home. Once the ride was secured and visas were promised, Tisdale and Ngai created a birth certificate for each and every child for whom one was needed. Any child over the age of 10 was prevented from leaving, as well as Madam Ngai, but Betty Tisdale, accompanied by 219 children, were air lifted out of Saigon April 11, 1975.

All of the children, like Jeff Eckert, were adopted from an agency in York, Pennsylvania, including the five Vietnamese girls she herself adopted with her then husband, Colonel Patrick Tisdale. Many have contacted Betty Tisdale. Jeffery Eckert, now living in Florida, was hearing her story, in its entirety, for the first time.

Tisdale has not retired from the orphans’ cause, nor has she forgotten the conditions in which children, like those she rescued in 1975, live. She has continued to raise money for orphanages in Vietnam, and in 2000, she founded HALO (Helping And Loving Orphans), an organization that is “dedicated to bettering the lives of orphans and at-risk children around the world.”

Tisdale is a woman of extraordinary accomplishment. She has affected the lives of hundreds of people, but she is not satisfied; 40 years of charitable fund-raising is proof. For many, Ralph Waldo Emerson may have best described the life of Betty Tisdale when he said, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – that is to have succeeded.”

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Kelly Finlan

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