In 1982, Doug Ogden, right, helped the Cambodian family of Voeung Keo, immigrate to Springfield. He reconnected with them in Seattle last June. Photo courtesy of the Keo/Lin family

Stafford: Immigrant family, sponsors make long awaited connection

Second of a two-part column

She’s now married and goes by Ravynna (ruh-VEE-nuh).

But she was Ravy, which rhymes with savvy, when her Cambodian family arrived in Springfield on April 2, 1982.

What happened when she turned 4 on April 6 explains why from the two years of “wonderful, wonderful carefree time” spent in Springfield, Ravynna Tolliver-Lin says “birthdays were the best.”

PART I: Springfield sponsors anticipate reunion with immigrant family

Now 40, freshly married and living in Kent, Wash., Tolliver-Lin looks back on the Lin and Keo family’s days in Springfield as a brief, rare time of peace and stability.

“My brothers and I were always out and about enjoying life,” Tolliver-Lin said. “Everything felt normal.”

That contrasted sharply with the days the family spent as refugees from the war in Vietnam before living here and later days residing in violence-plagued Seattle public housing projects.

From a distance of 35 years, then Wittenberg University Pastor Michael Wuchter, who was instrumental in sponsoring the family, lives on in Tolliver-Lin’s memory as “a kind-hearted individual, very pleasant to be around.

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“I remember his children,” she added, “but don’t ask me how I remember their names.”

She has clearer recollections of Milton and Martha Ogden, who spent a good deal of time with her and her brothers, as is evidenced in the Ogdens’ photo albums.

“Mrs. Ogden, love her to death. Their family was very, very involved in pretty much our daily lives, just helping us navigate … and taking us to school and church.”

Older brother Satah (sa-TAH) remembers a woody station wagon in which Mike and Ruth Otto drove him to Rockway Lutheran Church.

Younger brother Ritzy (Ri-TEE) retains childhood memories of fireflies, playing in the snow and “hanging out at the college” with student Caroline Rice.

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“We all ran around together in a world inhabited by “a lot of animals,” he said. “I think we had a rabbit at the house.”

Then, in the summer of 1984, two years into their stay, the family abruptly left, shocking the Ogdens and throwing the Keos and Lins into chaos.

Stressed-out in Seattle

“That whole transitioning to Seattle was a nightmare” said Tolliver-Lin – one that made them long for a time when they were “able to wander the streets without fear” and the community support they experienced here.

The move came at the urging of an uncle on their mother’s side, the same uncle who, while living in Springfield, persuaded the Weaver Chapel Association to sponsor the Vin/Keo family’s resettlement here.

“I was very young when we got to Seattle,” Rathi said. “We were in a poor neighborhood, a lot drugs, a lot of crime, a lot of gangs, a lot of obstacles” and gunfire heard in the night.

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It was a time when their names were Americanized from Sithan to Tony, Sitha to Todd, Ravynna to Christine; and Ravinn to Steve. Rithy became Tee because “everybody had trouble pronouncing my Cambodian name.”

It was not the only trouble. The children were caught not only between cultures but between Seattle-based gangs Doug Ogden had read about while worrying about the family.

“I got into a lot of fights at school (and) got picked on because I was smaller than everyone (and) because we were poor,” said Tee.

He doesn’t blame his older brothers for leaving home as soon as they could, “but it was hard for me and my younger brothers,” he said. “We had to figure out how to maneuver ourselves.”

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For him, the maneuvering came to an end at 18, when he was arrested for armed robbery. “No one was hurt. We just went in and got the money and left,” he said, “but I’m sure it troubled (the victims) mentally.”

His 10 years in Washington state prison and three additional months in federal prison were “definitely a very dark time in our lives,” his sister said.

But the shadows continue because the crime he committed bars him from becoming a naturalized citizen, meaning that he and his wife and children are “living in limbo,” knowing he could be deported at any time.

While he has been trying to lay down roots, trying to stay active and “trying not to let it get me down,” his sister says she and the rest of the family can “only hope to God” that the day of his deportation never arrives.

During the imprisonment when “we had it worse than him,” she said, “he was pretty much our strength through this whole ordeal.”

Where did the years go?

Only after seeing nearly 35 years of good times and bad pass in the blink an eye does that experience seem possible. By 2018, the Keo/Lin family and the Ogden family both knew the feeling and, nonetheless, retained an interest in reconnecting.

Last May, the second oldest son, Satah – the one who called Mrs. Ogden grandma – drove from Seattle to Springfield but came up empty.

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The house on West Cecil Street they’d lived in had long since been bulldozed for the Wittenberg University tennis courts. Pastor Wuchter, who had passed away on a mission trip to Namibia was nowhere to be found. The Yin and Keo names rang no bells at Weaver Chapel, and Satah was unable to find the Ogdens.

Although Milton Ogden had passed away in January, Satah and Mrs. Ogden missed one another by three hours and a few footsteps. He had eaten at the Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken across the street from Springfield Regional Medical Center on a day she visited the hospital.

Days after Satah returned home, Pastor Doug Ogden was in his office in Lebanon Lutheran Church in Whitehall, Mich., searching on the internet for addresses of Boy Scouts who had been in the church’s troop over the course of 60 years to raise funds for a new scout facility.

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Bored and needing a break, he did what he’d done before: Typed the name of Chandra Keo, the Lin children’s stepfather, into the search program. When a Seattle address popped up, he wrote a card, stamped it and dropped it in the mail.

On May 8, just finishing a day working as a property manager and Realtor in Seattle, “I opened up the mailbox and found this card,” Tolliver-Lin said. “It said Doug Ogden (and) I literally fell to the ground crying.”

An email and phone call later, the two were shedding tears together. Tolliver-Lin then called Martha Ogden and shed more, then the entire family got into the act.

Said Tolliver-Lin, “It was like we had never left.”

Dad’s thumb

A month later, Doug Ogden flew to Washington with his son Stephen, who, from his earliest days, remembers a line having to do with the Keos and Lins that became a family joke. After the many times he was shown their picture on the final page of the Newsweek American Dream issue focused on Springfield and its immigrant families, he was directed to a spot on the photo and told “That’s Dad’s thumb.”

Arriving late at night, one of the sons said the family couldn’t see them until morning, then, feigning hunger, pulled over to a restaurant for a bite to eat. The family was inside.

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During the flight, father had told son “there are 16 people there who already think of you as family.” Despite the warning Stephen was “totally overwhelmed” at the reception – the laughter, the taking of pictures, the stroll into the parking lot and the 12:30 a.m. car ride through the streets of Seattle.

Doug was relieved “that they were all together, that they were all alive, and that they all were happy and healthy.” He then got down to the business of who was who and who went by which Americanized name.

Father and son spent snippets of time with all the family members over the next 10 days, taking in a Mariners game and, on the final day receiving a parting gift. The first came in a request from Ravynna and her then fiancé that Pastor Ogden perform their wedding ceremony. The second was in the couple’s wish to travel to Whitehall, Mich., for the ceremony.

Having missed the chance of a reunion with the late Mr. Ogden, “I didn’t want to miss meeting (Mrs. Ogden), Tolliver-Lin said. “It was so important that we incorporate her in the wedding soon.”

Connection and completion

An August date was chosen. The Seattle party arrived a week early; granddaughter Allie Ogden drove 81-year-old Martha from Springfield to Whitehall; and the in-person reunion began in a church social room.

Mrs. Ogden let Dara Keo put down a plate of eggrolls before she approached him for a hug. Then Ravynna and her then fiancé, Clay, exchanged tears, smiles and laughs with her. Smart phones were fired up, and Mrs. Ogden Face-Timed with the boys who had grown into men in Seattle.

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Two days before the wedding, she also sat down with the bride’s mother, Voeung Keo, who recalled an act of kindness dating to the early 1980s. Shortly after giving birth in Springfield, Mrs. Ogden arranged with Dr. Walter Lawrence to have a plantar wart removed from Mrs. Keo’s foot with minimal or no charge. During the procedure, Mrs. Keo recalled, “you held my hand.”

The wedding went off with the congregation of Lebanon Lutheran Church peopling the sanctuary and the vows preceded by the bride’s baptism, joyfully performed by the pastor.

The bride treasures, of course, the memory of being in her husband’s arms that day. But she also treasures her embrace days earlier when she and Mrs. Ogden “grabbed each other and hung on and just cried like babies.”

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For Tolliver-Lin, some of the tears were a bittersweet mixture of fond memories of childhood and regrets over what followed. Her dreams of being a doctor or lawyer disappeared in the troubled early days in Seattle and “my family would have made something of ourselves (and had) just more positive outcomes in life if we had stayed in Ohio.”

But after 40 years of a migration that began in worn-torn Cambodia and made its way through Thailand and Ohio before moving on to Seattle, renewing her connections with the Ogdens has brought Tolliver-Lin a sense of peace to the girl who turned 4 here.

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“I think right now the best way to describe it was that my life felt so complete after seeing them. Just being able to see the family again.

“My life’s definitely complete now,” she said, though more visits seem likely.

The Keo’s were the last family mentioned in Newsweek’s 1983 “American Dream” issue about immigrant families.

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