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Gainesville woman, Vietnamese boys forge a family tree
Doris Herrin becomes substitute grandmother to three young boys
Doris Herrin shows off a photo of her and one of the three boys she adopted as her grandchildren. She celebrated school achievements with them and still maintains weekly contact with them. - photo by Erin O. Smith

For Doris Herrin, introducing herself to the new neighbors was just the “Christian” thing to do. However, when she met the Vietnamese family who moved across the street 27 years ago, one little boy changed her life forever.

It was 1988 and Herrin’s only daughter, Kay, was grown and working as a physical therapist in Atlanta. But she did not indicate any signs to her parents of starting her own family to the dismay of Herrin who longed for a grandchild as most mothers do.

Therefore, the then-57-year-old decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I told Kay if she wouldn’t have a kid, I would go find my own grandchild,” Herrin said matter-of-factly with a smile.

Luckily, the Gainesville woman didn’t have to look very far. One afternoon, her new neighbor, Lee Nguyen, toted his 5-year-old son, Thanh, across the street to meet the Herrins.

Her husband, Harold, offered to lend the foreign family a lawnmower because their yard had become overgrown. As a thank you, Nguyen invited Herrin into his home one afternoon and let his wife, Thai, paint her nails as practice for cosmetology school.

“I went over there, and they told me about what a hard time they had getting here,” the now-84-year-old Herrin said. “One of them was shot getting on the boat. They left during the war, and Lee’s father was in prison in Vietnam already.”

The Nguyens shared their story with Herrin through Thanh, who could speak enough English to communicate with her. As the families got to know each other, the Nguyens revealed more about their lives, including their reason for moving to Gainesville. It was to work in the chicken plants. The family also told Herrin about everyone who they left behind in Vietnam.

“They said they didn’t guess Thanh would ever see his grandparents,” Herrin said.

Therefore, Herrin concocted a plan. After bonding with Thanh through visits at both houses and chats on the porch with his dad, Lee, she offered the 5-year-old a proposal.

“I asked him if he would consider being my grandson,” Herrin said. “He said, ‘Yes, I want to be your grandson.’”

The bond has lasted ever since.

Beginning of a bond

After the agreement was reached between Herrin and Thanh, the young boy stepped off his school bus every afternoon at Herrin’s house. The Gainesville woman ushered the elementary school student into her home off Sunset Boulevard and help him with his homework.

After spending time with each other, the pair soon realized Herrin needed a nickname.

“I said, ‘How about Sub-ma for substitute grandma,’” Herrin said. “Thanh agreed, and soon he and all of his friends were calling me Sub-ma.”

The relationship between Thanh, who now goes by Thomas, and Herrin did not remain inside the boundaries of their two homes. The young boy accompanied the Herrins on vacation and spent holidays with them. He even had them listed as his emergency contacts at school.

“Thomas” Thanh Nguyen said it never crossed his mind that he was a Vietnamese boy with a Caucasian grandmother. To him, she was his grandmother.

“When I would introduce her to people, sometimes it was a little odd,” the now-32-year-old Nguyen said. “But we never thought much about it.”

The pair was so close Herrin was the first person Nguyen called when he had a mishap at school one day.

“They called me when Thanh got hurt,” Herrin said, noting his parents were called on the way to the hospital. “He had broken his arm chasing a ball down a hill. They told him to call his dad, but he wanted them to call me. We went to the hospital, and he was so calm.”

While sitting in the waiting room, Herrin recalled Thanh remaining calm and collected. But she noticed the youngster was humming a tune.

“He was such a wonderful, happy child,” she said. “He never fussed about anything. He was humming, and I said ‘Thanh, what are you humming?’ He said ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

Parental support, guidance and love

Nguyen said while his parents were supportive and loving, Herrin was different. He explained his parents would “baby” him when he got hurt. However, Herrin would bandage him up and “keep on truckin’,” he said.

“Sub-ma wanted me to gain independence,” Nguyen said in his educated Southern accent. “But she was very nurturing. My parents were tough on me because they were always busy working.”

Nguyen actually attributes his success in life to having American and Vietnamese influences. He said many first-generation immigrants either see how hard their parents work and use it as an inspiration or observe the wealth of Americans and use it as a way to rebel or feel sorry for themselves.

“I probably would have been the latter if it weren’t for Sub-ma guiding me,” Nguyen said.

And each time Thanh needed help or succeeded in school, Herrin was there. She quizzed him on his homework and attended his honors assemblies.

Herrin and her home also became a refuge. Nguyen said as he was growing up, his parents fought often. He said she was always there for him to talk to or confide in.

“She was the first person I would go to for advice,” Nguyen said. “When they would argue, it was most of what I talked about with Sub-ma. I would tell her secrets and vent about problems, which goes against the Vietnamese culture.”

Nguyen explained most Vietnamese don’t share their problems with anyone. But to him, Herrin was family. He trusted her.

That trust led Herrin to expose her grandson to many rite-of-passage milestones.

Nguyen said he learned to drive in Herrin’s car. She was also the first person Nguyen told about transferring from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., to the University of Georgia.

She also exposed him to many firsts, including a snowy adventure.

“When I was young, a snowstorm came through, and my parents were at home,” Nguyen said. “They didn’t know what to do with themselves. Sub-ma called me to go sledding, which I had never done before.

“We went down her driveway, down the yard, in a sled for the first time.”

Herrin also received the honor of being the first person to meet Nguyen’s now-wife, Bethany.

“We were at that point where you decide if it’s going to work out or not,” Nguyen said. “I had never brought anyone home to meet my family. The first person I let her meet was Sub-ma because they had things in common. They hit it off, and it eased Bethany into meeting the rest of the family.”

This first encounter along with his lifelong connection to Herrin led Nguyen to give her a place of honor at his wedding reception. Herrin sat at his side at the head table.

The couple, who live in Athens as Nguyen finishes his doctorate in pharmacology at UGA, has now been married for three years. They are welcoming a new addition in the fall, supplying a great-grandchild for Sub-ma.

“She was the second person I told after my mom when we found out,” Nguyen said. “She is my grandma.”

Adopting more grandchildren

While Herrin considers Nguyen her grandchild, he is not alone in that distinction.

As time passed, she “adopted” two more grandchildren who are Nguyen’s cousins and lived on Sunset Boulevard. But she did with some reserve.

At first, she wasn’t thrilled at the idea of having any more grandchildren than Thanh.

“Thai (Thanh’s mother) called me one day and said that Lee’s sister and her two kids were coming over and she wanted me to meet them,” Herrin said. “The oldest boy, he was 14. Cole (Doherty) , was the saddest-looking child I had ever seen.”

The younger boy, Reid Doherty, was 5 at the time.

Thai told Herrin that she wanted her to help the cousins the way she helped Thanh.

“I said ‘No!’” Herrin said, emphatically. “Neither of them spoke any English, and I was taking care of Harold who was sick with diabetes.”

Eventually though, she relented.

Herrin tried to teach them English on occasion, which cemented a growing bond among the trio.

Reid, who is now 17 and a rising senior at Johnson High School, picked up the language quickly. Cole learned a little slower.

Herrin and her husband soon found themselves repeating history. The couple took the two boys on trips similar to the ones they took with Thanh. The two young boys also accompanied the Herrins to church each week, which was a surprise.

“Their family was Buddhist, but they went to church with me,” Herrin said. “I never pushed them; but I gave them a Bible and told them if they wanted to become a Christian, it was their choice.”

She gave Cole and Reid a piece of Scripture and left the topic alone. Then one day the doorbell rang.

“It was Cole,” Herrin said. “He said ‘I just need to talk to you.’ His boss at Chick-fil-A in Cumming had talked to him some about being a Christian, but I didn’t know that at the time. He told me he wanted to become a Christian.”

Herrin asked Cole when he wanted to discuss the topic. He replied he was ready right then.

“We got the Bible out and read the Scripture I had given him,” Herrin said. “We knelt at the sofa and prayed. I cried. It was a wonderful time.”

Cole turned 25 last week, and Herrin celebrated with the family Saturday.

And the bond with all three boys is still strong.

“I talk to them just about every week on the phone,” Herrin said.