In Your Midst
The Pew Next to You
March 2006

Meet Betty Tisdale and Matt Zemek

       Betty Tisdale has received many accolades for her humanitarian concerns and assistance for the endangered children of the world. Perhaps the most recognized is the title, “Angel of Saigon.” She has been on the NBC “Today Show” and articles on her work have been published in Time Magazine, Atlanta Constitution, Ladies’ Home Journal and USA Today. She is also the recipient of a Presidential Commendation and a special award from the government of South Vietnam. In 1999, Seattle proclaimed September 15, Betty Tisdale Day.

Betty Tisdale with her beloved orphans in Vietnam

    But this parishioner brushes aside all the honors and says, “I am just a beggar. I want every dollar I raise to benefit the children so I beg for the operation costs.”

    These simple words describe all that this one woman has accomplished in evacuating children by plane loads from Vietnam to the US for adoption, building medical clinics and establishing orphanages—work she continues to do today.

    In 1960 Betty met the famous Dr. Tom Dooley in New York shortly before his death in January of 1961. Inspired by his care for the homeless and sick in his clinics in Laos, Thailand and at the An Lac Orphanage in Saigon, South Vietnam, she took the first of many, many trips to Southeast Asia. In 1969 as secretary to Senator Jacob K. Javits, Betty was instrumental in having the senator’s law firm implement the An Lac Orphanage as a non-profit. Thanks to this tax status, and to continued support from American soldiers in Vietnam and Betty, the orphanage continues to aid homeless children today.

    In April, 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Betty acted with the South Vietnamese government to see that approximately 3,550 orphans were airlifted to safety and placed with adoptive families. Betty’s website has a revealing paragraph that illuminates the strength and tenacity of this Angel of Saigon.

    “All was going well until word came of the imminent fall of Vietnam. Tisdale knew what had to be done and wasn’t about to let the bureaucratic details get in her way. She arranged for her flight to Vietnam and contacted the Secretary of the Army to begin the process of evacuating the entire orphanage (An Lac). But he wouldn’t return her call, so Tisdale called his mother and explained the plight of the children. He called back.”
During the 1960s when Betty was going back and forth from Asia to the states, she met US Army Colonel Patrick D. Tisdale, a doctor stationed in Vietnam. He was a widower with five sons. They were married in 1969. After establishing a home in Georgia, they adopted five daughters from An Lac. The family moved to Seattle in the 1980s.

Betty Tisdale

    Betty’s children are all grown and she is now on her own. She is in close contact with her children and they support her and her endeavors everyway they can.

    Sean, Patrick, James, Danny and Neal are her sons and they live from the East to the West Coast. The daughters are: Xuan Lucie in Hawaii, Lien Maria of Shoreline, Mai Lara of Seattle, Thuvan Elizabeth in Jackson, Florida, and Kim Lan Amie of Seattle. Kim Lan is secretary on the board of governors for HALO (Helping and Loving Orphans).

    Betty founded the new non-profit in 2000 and its mission is to aid orphaned children and children-at-risk mostly in developing countries. They now provide assistance in Vietnam, Columbia, Afghanistan and Mexico. HALO has responded to the natural disasters of the Tsunami, hurricane in New Orleans and the earthquake in Pakistan. After 9/11, HALO sent a major donation to the children of the deceased police and firefighters of New York City.

    Betty is constantly campaigning not only for funds, but to encourage others (individuals or groups) to adopt and sustain a project from among the many needs of at-risk children. Betty will go most anywhere to talk about HALO. She visits schools to enlist children, to enlist their parents. She was in Bogotá, Columbia in January visiting the Luz y Vida Orphanage. It houses handicapped children. HALO has provided the salary for a physical therapist each year and recently worked on getting two girls to a hospital in Miami for surgery.

    The needs never end: baby cribs, baby clothes, mattresses and pillows, a new roof, vitamins, infant toys, toys for children, clothes for children, school supplies, salaries for teachers… For more information about Betty and HALO, visit


    Matt Zemek, 30, is a St. James Cathedral parishioner with a passion for writing and an intense passion for social justice. Matt is the assistant director of the Family Kitchen and usually welcomes the patrons at the door as they come and leave.

    He grew up in Phoenix and came to Seattle in 1994 to attend Seattle University for a degree in journalism. That fall, he found St. James Cathedral when it was “St. Gym” (Sunday Mass was held in the O’Dea Gymnasium during the 1994 Renovation). Finding a Cathedral having its Sunday Masses in a gym was especially appealing to Matt and his love of sports.

Matt Zemek

    Matt also came to the Catholic Worker Family Kitchen in St. James Cathedral Hall. He joined the group of student volunteers that came each Friday to help prepare and serve the family meal. (Students still come each week and have done so for over 15 years.)

    As a six-year-old, Matt’s passion wasn’t quite so compassionate. He was an intense fan of pro football. Matt says he taught himself to read trying to decipher what the articles on the sports pages said. He was also a poor loser, and if his favorite team lost, everyone around him knew. His parents counseled him about winning and losing and assured him there were more important things than losing a football game. When Matt was in high school he would accompany his mother as she made visits for their parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society. And like his mother, Matt became a very active member of the St. James Conference of SVDP Society.

    While in college, Matt began writing for the internet and also started officiating at inter-mural and recreational basketball teams. He has been a sportswriter for seven years for, covered college football and is a national staff columnist for On the social justice side, He has had several op-ed articles published in the Seattle Times and is the author of a book on politics, Liberalism the Right Way, published online by

    Matt learned a few lessons the hard way. He developed some health problems while eating all the wrong foods, becoming overweight and suffering from severe hypertension and anxiety problems. It took months to adopt a healthier lifestyle and to learn not to be so intense about social issues and expect everyone else to agree with him.

    Matt has always been moved by the beautiful liturgies at St. James Cathedral while supporting its mission of feeding and sheltering the homeless, offering English as a second-language help for immigrants, assistance for the elderly and infirm, education for the children and a year-round RCIA program for the pilgrims that come looking for the Way.

Joan McDonell is a longtime Cathedral parishioner and a daily volunteer in the parish office.

Back to the March 2006 Issue of In Your Midst