At first glance, 1979 was not a year to write home about. Inflation gave us double digits. The gas shortage required us to memorize our odd-even license plates. We’ll never hear the words “Three Mile Island” again without a chill. And then there was Iran, piracy made foreign policy.
But as troubled as the past 12 months have been, there were bright moments, more perhaps than we might remember offhand. In sizing up the newsmakers for our list of the 25 Most Intriguing People of 1979, we discovered that many of the men and women worth remembering this year had stories to tell that were encouraging, some even inspiring.
It was a year, for example, in which Joan Kennedy emerged from her reclusive life in Boston. It also saw Soviet dancer Aleksandr Godunov take a perilous leap to freedom in America, Gloria Vanderbilt reestablish the well-rounded rear as a fashion ideal, and Willie Stargell become Pittsburgh’s MVP (Most Venerated “Pop”). And any year that brings glamor to punk rock or Bo Derek to the movies can’t be all bad.
It was, in fact, a year in which adversity often brought out the best in people. Take the plight of Southeast Asia’s refugees. In August we published an interview with a remarkable man named Stan Mooneyham, whose World Vision organization was dedicated to rescuing Vietnam’s Boat People as well as other displaced Asians.
His message was direct: Americans must assist these hapless families. “They are the driftwood of our war,” he said. “We created in them a desire for freedom.” We not only agreed with Mooneyham, we published the first editorial in PEOPLE’S history. In it we outlined what all of us could do to help and gave the names, addresses and phone numbers of 60 agencies to contact in the U.S. and Canada.
Your response was wonderful. “What an outpouring,” says Jan Pittman of the Catholic Conference in Fort Walton, Fla. “We had close to 300 letters from all over our area. Money came in from all age groups. We had some contributions of $1 and $2, and you could tell by the signatures that the contributors were old. They probably had to dig down deep for the money.” Others, like a 25-year-old, wrote: “I have no money, but lots of love. I can work.” Encouraging, too, were letters from schoolchildren asking for more information. In their budding awareness of the tragedy is hope for its eventual solution.
The response was similar elsewhere. “Our telephone rang off the wall,” says an agency in Connecticut. “We reprinted the page and sent it out to everyone who wrote or called,” an official from the Virginia Council of Churches says. “I hope that was all right.” (It was.) Michigan reports that the governor’s office is trying to set up a “state sponsorship program.”
In our follow-up, we checked with some citizens who want to sponsor refugee families. It isn’t easy. There are multinational bureaucracies to cope with as well as a U.S. government quota of 14,000 refugees a month, a tiny fraction of the estimated third of a million in camps. But the sponsors are persistent, if not patient.
John and Joan Carter of Covington, Ga. are typical. They had little room in their home and less extra money. But working with their church, St. Augustan’s, the Carters and their friends found an abandoned four-bedroom house whose owner agreed to rent it for $30 a month.
For three months volunteers fixed it up with donated materials—total cash outlay, $700. Since October it has been home to Xuon Chi Lu and his Vietnamese family of nine—including a 6-month-old son born in a Hong Kong refugee camp. Other Vietnamese stay there temporarily.
“It is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” says Joan Carter, who trades recipes with Mrs. Lu. “Looking back, I didn’t think we had anything to offer. It’s wonderful to find that we do. We had 27 here for Thanksgiving dinner, and 17 of them were Vietnamese.”
When we called the West Virginia Office of Refugees and Migration Services, a woman told us that seven families of Boat People had arrived in October and November, and she added, “We are very, very happy you printed that article.”
So are we.