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Former Refugees Donate $100K for UTSD’s First Professorship in OMS

Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 4:10pm

Signing documents to establish the Nguyen-Thang Family Professorship in Oral Surgery are (from left) Susie Thang, RPh and husband James N. Thang, DMD; UTSD Advisory Council member and family friend Don Le, DDS; UTSD Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Department Chair Mark Wong, BDS; and Dean John Valenza, DDS.

Signing documents to establish the Nguyen Thang Family Professorship in Oral Surgery are (from left) Susie Thang, RPh and husband James N. Thang, DMD; UTSD Advisory Council member and family friend Don Le, DDS; UTSD Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Department Chair Mark Wong, BDS; and Dean John Valenza, DDS.  Photo by Rhonda Whitmeyer. 

James Nguyen Thang, DMD, has never forgotten walking through an Arkansas camp crowded with Vietnamese refugees in 1975 and wanting an apple he saw at a fruit stand. “I still have that apple in my mind. I really, really wanted it, but I didn’t have a quarter to my name,” he said.

He and his wife, Susie H. Thang, narrowly escaped Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese. As a dentist, James was required to serve in the South Vietnamese military, but it was that service that secured their escape to the U.S.

“We were only given a couple of hours’ notice,” he said. “We drove to the airport with only the clothes on our backs. We abandoned our car at the airport, and there were planes standing by, ready to transport military personnel and their families out of the country.”

The Thangs would land in Arkansas – two of 20,000 refugees fleeing the communists. 

In such a large camp, a call went out for people who could help with health and dental needs. James volunteered, and that led him to meet the man who would help the couple get on solid footing in America:  Dr. George Roksandic, a dentist from Harrisburg, Penn., who was treating people in the camp. He helped the couple establish a home in Oklahoma and gave them direction on enrolling in school.

James was already a 1972 graduate of The University of Saigon-Vietnam School of Dentistry, and Susie was a pharmacist, having graduated from Saigon Pharmacy School the same year. Both had studied English as a second language in high school and college.

Susie Hoa Vu and her future husband, James Nguyen Thang, at his graduation from dental school in 1972. They married the next year in Saigon.

Susie Hoa Vu and her future husband, James Nguyen Thang, at his graduation from dental school in 1972. They were married the next year in Saigon.

When they came to the U.S., they worked multiple jobs to put themselves through school again to earn U.S. licensure.  James graduated from The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Dentistry in 1979, and Susie graduated from Samford University School of Pharmacy in 1980.

Today, they live in West University Place, and James is in private practice while Susie is active in the real estate business after many years in retail pharmacy. 

Their three children have all chosen to follow in their parents’ footsteps as health-care professionals.  Daughter Susie is a pharmacist and University of Houston graduate. Oldest son Jimmy is a dentist, and younger son Chris is a 2012 graduate of The University of Texas School of Dentistry. He is currently a second-year oral and maxillofacial surgery resident.

“We never told our children they had to do what we do. In America, children have so many choices,” James said. 

One thing the Thangs did tell their family is to remember those who helped, and to help others in kind.  Toward that end, the couple recently created the first endowed professorship for the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at UT School of Dentistry at Houston. 

“The Nguyen Thang Family Professorship in Oral Surgery” was funded with a $100,000 gift to the university from James Thang, DMD, and Susie H. Thang, RPh.

“We often talk in our family about never forgetting to give back,” James said. “We tell our kids that:  ‘Never forget the teachers in your life. Never forget the schools in your life that make such a difference.’"

James said he has always wanted to do something to give back to the dental community, and the endowed professorship is a first step. Later, he plans to volunteer and visit other countries in need of trained dentists.

“I wanted to give back to the profession that saved my family, provided for them and brought me to the country I love,” he said. “Our family will never forget the good hearts of the American people.  When we had no country, no homeland, you wanted to help.”