Family Man

Matthew Anderson
Western Today editor

Thomas Tran is a busy man.

His work day begins at 9 a.m. in a tidy rambler at the corner of Nevada and Texas streets in Bellingham. There, in a small shed at the side of the house, Tran operates his Thomas’ Hair Studio, cutting hair and coiffing ’dos for back-to-back customers until his 2:30 p.m. closing time.

Then, Tran says goodbye to his mother, with whom he lives, and hoofs it to Western Washington University, where he works into the night as a custodian, cleaning the administrative buildings on 32nd Street, the Physical Plant on 26th Street and a raft of buildings on the south end of campus.

“I enjoy doing the custodian job,” says Tran, who’s worked at Western for more than a decade, “because I get my exercise.”

But talk to those on campus who know him, and you’ll find that Tran gets his exercise in a lot of other ways, too. Immersed in the world of fashion, Tran designs dresses and is a make-up artist. He crafts jewelry and is an accomplished hairstylist. He knits. He paints. He sings. He takes photos. He dances.

A collection of dresses and hats Tran designed was featured in the Staff Arts and Crafts Show a few years back, says Nancy Phillips, assistant to the vice president for Business and Financial Affairs and the coordinator of the event.

“He custom-makes beautiful clothes,” she says.

A number of his paintings also have been shown at Western, Tran says. And years ago, when he was in beauty school, he entered numerous hair-and-makeup competitions. He never lost, and he has the trophies to prove it.

“I’m not sure there’s anything he doesn’t do,” says Kathie Loftin, who works in the Registrar’s Office on campus.

And Loftin should know. She first met Tran back in 1999 when she was working in the Journalism Department, where Tran was the custodian. She’d heard from a co-worker that Tran was a dancer, and it wasn’t long before Loftin, a dance enthusiast who’d been taking lessons downtown—turned to Tran for help.

“I’d ask him to come down to the Wild Buffalo to dance with me,” she says. “He’d come down at midnight, after he got off work, and we’d get maybe an hour.”

That hour turned to two, three and four, as the new dance team began showing up at spots throughout town, whirling and twirling among the crowds. Loftin was hooked.

“We got to where we were pretty much inseparable, dancing three nights a week,” she says.

They started hitting the road to the Tulalip Casino, where Loftin and Tran would cut it up on Asian dance night.

“Everyone wanted to dance with him after we’d go out there,” she says.

Then, in 2005, Tran surprised her with a gift she’ll never forget.

Tran entered a couple’s dance contest at the casino and made it through the first two rounds with a different partner. Then he asked the judges if he could finish the competition with Loftin.

“I surprised her,” Tran says, his usual grin especially wide. “She didn’t know it. But we won first place. She’s an amazing dancer, very graceful.”

It was a night to remember for Loftin.

“He made my dress, fixed my hair and did my makeup,” she says. “Then we beat out four other couples. It was so exciting.”

Loftin, who hasn’t danced with Tran for several years because of other time commitments, says she still owes him a debt of gratitude.

“He’s been my friend for a long time,” she says. “He helped me realize one of my lifelong dreams.”

Helping others is a way of life for Tran.

“When I met him, he was literally sacrificing his life to take care of his family,” Loftin says. “He’s a kind, generous and humble young man.”


Tran was born in 1975 in Vietnam, the same year as the fall of Saigon. The times were hard and the years were lean for Tran, his mother and his six sisters. Because he’d helped the United States during the Vietnam War, Tran’s father was tossed in prison by the communist government, and the family was allowed to see him only twice per year.

The government also seized all of the family’s property, including their nice house on the coast.

“We lost everything,” Tran says. “We were homeless.”

The family became briefly nomadic. They’d sleep under a different house each night, careful to remain quiet as they snuck in early in the morning so as not to awaken the homeowners.

Later, a friend of his mother from her hometown of Hue let the struggling family sleep in her shed at night.

“My first full-time job was when I was 6 years old,” Tran says. “At 2 a.m. every morning, we had to be right there in the supermarket to sell sandwiches.”

He and his sisters walked 2 1/2 miles in the dark, carrying a bamboo basket of sandwiches his mom had made. They lit the path with an old oil lamp that barely cast enough light to allow them to see their feet.

“It was so dark, and we were so little,” he says.

Tran would return home at 5:30 a.m., at which time he’d shower and head off to school. When his classes were over, he’d trek to another house, where he cleaned, cooked and took care of the homeowners’ young daughter.

“When I grew up, it was just work, work, work,” Tran says. “No time to play. No toys.”

It was hard, but it wasn’t impossible, and through it all Tran learned some valuable lessons.

“The Vietnam War has given me a big lesson in my life,” he says. “It taught me what I can do and what I cannot do. It was scary, very scary.”

Tran’s mother, a nurse practitioner, eventually succumbed to the stress and strain of trying to raise seven children alone. Tran’s two oldest sisters dropped out of school to care for her. They had no money to pay for hospital care, and the government—again, because Tran’s father had helped foreign governments during the war—did its best to prevent friends and relatives from sending medicine, Tran says.

Eventually, they did get help, from a relative living in California, and Tran’s mother recovered. And later, under a program that allowed those who were imprisoned for working for the U.S. government during the war to immigrate to the United States, the Tran family made the move, landing on U.S. soil in 1992. They had sold their home and all their possessions in Vietnam for the U.S. equivalent of $120.

The U.S. government gave the family another thousand, and they were sponsored by the family of the husband of one of Tran’s sisters, who rented them a three-bedroom home in Bellingham.

“I feel very fortunate to be in this country, because of a lot of open doors,” Tran says. “I really thank God. Everything turned out super, super well.”


Immediately upon arriving, Tran set to keeping himself busy. He graduated from Bellingham High School in 1995, and then went on to Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Beauty School.

He worked a number of jobs, as a custodian and at a couple of restaurants in the Bellis Fair Mall—all at the same time.

“You have to work hard,” Tran says, “because if you don’t, you can’t make anything happen.”

With his mother, father and one of his sisters, Tran would toil all night cleaning at various businesses. At four or five in the morning, his mom and sister would leave for another job, while Thomas, his dad and his brother-in-law Frank would continue cleaning.

Now, Tran is co-owner of the janitorial company, White-Glove Janitorial Services, with his brother-in-law. And with his sister Kelly, he co-owns Oriento, a restaurant serving Asian cuisine, on Meridian Street in the Fountain District. That restaurant is run by Kelly’s husband, Michael.

All six of Tran’s sisters now live in Bellingham. Three run their own beauty salons, and the other three work in the salons of others.

“They’re all very successful,” he says. “I’m very proud of my sisters; they’re wonderful.”

But the family members don’t let success get to their heads, and they never forget their humble beginnings.

That friend of their mom’s who let them sleep in her shed at night back in Vietnam? The family still sends her money, every single year. They’ll do so until she dies.

“My mother always taught me, if someone helped you, you have to give it 10,000 times back to them,” Tran says.

After all, without that woman’s help and the help of others like her, who knows where he’d be today? Who knows whether the Trans would have made it across the world to settle down in Bellingham, the eight of them—Tran’s father died of lung cancer, though he never smoked, six years ago—together?

Money is just money, Tran says.

“I’m not wealthy, I’m not rich, but I do think I have everything,” he says. “I have the love of family. I have a good family.”

Tran once turned down a job offer from Disney to dance in the “Aladdin” musical at Disneyland. He said he’d rather stay in Bellingham to take care of his mother.

“I won’t leave her here alone,” he says. “It’s my tradition, because I’m the son in the family. That’s my responsibility. I have only one life, and I have to make my mom happy. I have to return whatever she’s given me. I have only one life.”

Monday, July 20, 2009