By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"We were very scared," he says. "I didn't deal with a lot of Americans. Only when I was in the principal's office. So when I talked with Bonnie, it was like I sort of subconsciously felt like I was in trouble. I didn't know the impact of what she did at the time."
The impact was that Duke, on a small scale, suddenly experienced fame. The story moved many Post readers to drop off books for Duke at the paper; within the confines of the Houston Independent School District, he became something of a semicelebrity. He visited other schools, and everywhere he went other children gave him even more books. Duke's principal frequently invited him to her home on weekends to play with her children and eat fajitas. It wasn't until he visited her two-story house -- without burglar bars or broken glass, with a manicured yard in a nice neighborhood -- that he finally understood the concept of "the better life" that his mother and father often said awaited them, if they just worked hard enough.
"At Allen Parkway Village," he says, his voice cracking, "you could always look up and see the skyscrapers. And Mom would say, 'Son, one day you're going to have a corner office.' That's what she told me. And so I always wanted that corner office."
It was during this period of celebrity that Duke also began a relationship with a woman who would become something of a third parent to him and the other Truong children.
Alice Freel lives alone in her second-floor one-bedroom apartment in a modest but pleasant retirement home on the west side of San Antonio. Despite her assisted-living environment, her acute deafness and her reliance on a walker, Freel remains a fiercely independent, sharp-witted and very proper woman who looks and acts considerably younger than her 93 years. Freel moved to San Antonio 12 years ago to be closer to two of her three children who live in the Central Texas area. Before the relocation, Freel spent 50 years in Houston.
When her first husband was killed in the Pacific Theater in World War II, Freel was forced to support her children and began a career as an educator, working as the registrar and an English teacher at The Kinkaid School. She was still at Kinkaid in October 1984 when she came across the story of the education-hungry Truong children in the Post. The article so touched Freel that she and Fran Harrell, a Milby High School English teacher who has since died, decided that they had to meet the precocious Duke Truong and his family.
"I was so interested in a family that was so interested in getting an education and going to college and being good citizens," says Freel.
Freel and Harrell called the Truongs and arranged to visit them. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, they drove to the vicinity of Allen Parkway Village but ended up getting lost. From a nearby gas station, Freel telephoned the Truongs, and Duke was dispatched on his bicycle to retrieve them.
"They were such a tight-knit family," recalls Freel. "Their mother made sure they came straight home from school and weren't out kicking the can. We just fell in love with them. And we just simply adopted them."
Every Christmas Freel and her friend took them small presents or sent them cards. One year Freel knitted house shoes for each of the kids. On another occasion the family brought egg rolls over to Freel's home for lunch. Later that day they had ice cream at Harrell's house.
"We went over there, and we all had ice cream cones," remembers Freel. "She had them eat them in the kitchen because she was so afraid that they might spill something on her carpet. But they did not spill one drop. They were so well brought up, and so careful. Such marvelous children."
More than anything else, she and Harrell began corresponding frequently with the children. She and Duke developed an especially close pen-pal friendship. Mostly she inquired about his studies. Sometimes she enclosed a check for $25 or so. Duke still recalls how proud he was of his letters from Freel, how special they made him feel.
"When she wrote to me, I didn't think about her as old," says Duke. "To me, it was just a person who cared about me, and I would brag about her letters to my friends -- that I had an American friend. That was pretty cool. It was nice and beautiful. Something between us just clicked, and we've been writing to each other ever since."
Almost ever since. Three years ago Duke stopped answering Freel's letters for a time. And when he finally resumed writing to her, Freel was disappointed and shocked to learn the reason behind the silence.
Following his 15 minutes of fame, as he was navigating that awkward course from boyhood to manhood, Duke Truong experienced two traumatic events that trouble him even today.
In the fall semester of 1989, Duke and his Vietnamese friend Vinh Doung enrolled in Washington High School's magnet program for the engineering profession. It was a situation that met with great approval from Duke's parents, who very much wanted their son to become an engineer. They often spoke about how much money engineers made, what nice families they had and what nice cars they drove. That sort of lifestyle -- especially the part about the cars -- greatly interested Duke and his pal.