Obituary: Huy Tien Vu
9 February 1978 - 9 January 2022
"The best guy with the biggest smile and heart"
Hong Nguyen had a closely-guarded collection of diamonds. She painstakingly hid them from the Vietnamese Army, used some of them to pay her family’s passage on a boat to freedom, and eventually smuggled what remained back into her keeping.
However one of the greatest treasures Hong carefully stowed on a refugee boat out of Vietnam was her grandson, Huy. Along with his parents, newborn sister Huong and an aunt and uncle, two-year-old Huy spent two weeks on the overcrowded fishing boat, drifting off the Vietnam coast to an Indonesian refugee camp. The Vu family spent months of uncertainty there, missing out on a chance to relocate to the United States, before finally arriving in New Zealand later in 1980 and settling in Hamilton.
Huy was immensely proud of his parents and grandparents and open about his early life. He wanted people to know about his family’s positive experience making New Zealand home, and to raise awareness of how important it is to support those rebuilding their lives in a new country.
He contributed his story to The New Wave: Hamilton’s Migrant Community, a 2016 exhibition by Wintec Media Arts students, featuring in a book as well as video.
“40 years on and the generosity of New Zealanders continues to astound me. The University of Waikato Chapel gave me my first rubbish bag of clothes as a new arrival to New Zealand. Since then, our family has worked hard to make a better life for ourselves in New Zealand.”
“Such a radiant, positive and genuine guy”
For Huy, a better life started in Hamilton, attending no less than three Catholic primary schools, intermediate school at Marist/Marian and high school at St John’s College, finishing seventh form in 1995. During these years Huy made lifelong friends who continue to be a huge part of his and his family’s life today. Huy and his “SJC crew” caught up regularly, most recently for a pizza night last week.
Huy stayed close to home when he finished school, enrolling at the University of Waikato and completing a Bachelor of Management Studies in Marketing and International Management in 1999.
After graduating, Huy started in a trainee manager role at an Auckland clothing company that his family was connected with. He took a short break to teach English in Japan, but in late 2002, he decided to make his way back to the University of Waikato to take up a role as an international customer services coordinator, then moving to work as the International Student Consultant in the Management School Student Centre from 2003 to 2007. Huy then worked within the University’s International Student Services central team from 2008 to 2019 in a progression of roles, being promoted to manager in 2016.
In 2019, Huy returned to where he started, in Waikato Management School, as the Divisional Manager Students. He quickly had an impact, receiving the divisional general staff excellence award in 2020 for his leadership in creating positive outcomes for staff, students and the University community.
Michelle Jordan-Tong, Huy’s colleague for almost 20 years and current manager, says Huy was respected and loved by his team and by his colleagues across the University.
“Huy believed in the value of education, in the importance of creating an inclusive and safe environment for both staff and students, and creating opportunities for people to grow. Huy was renowned for his authenticity, his compassion, his willingness to go the extra mile, his wonderful sense of fun and his ability to make a competition out of almost anything.”
Michelle reveals Friday afternoon often finished with a very competitive game of office mini putt or paper dart flying amongst the team, and Huy almost always won.
“An absolute superstar of a man”
Huy had a hugely positive impact on thousands of students throughout their time at the University.
He notably supported students arriving in New Zealand on scholarships from what was then known as the New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAID). These students were unique in that they came from developing countries, often either leaving their family at home or transplanting an entire family to New Zealand for their study. If anyone could have empathy for what these students were experiencing, it was Huy.
NZAID scholarship students had diverse needs, sometimes arriving with very little or no means of resettlement. Drawing on his own refugee background, and wanting to give NZAID students the same positive experience he had arriving in New Zealand, Huy would call upon all his resources and networks to ensure students had clothes, furniture and household items, in some instances hiring a truck to deliver donated goods.
Huy’s colleagues say he was an excellent travelling companion on work trips. One intrepid journey in 2008 saw him travel with his colleague Matt Sinton where other New Zealand universities hadn’t, to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, to promote the University, connect with alumni and support NZAID scholarship applications.
This trip included a few unusually high level meetings, including a chance conversation with the Solomon Islands Prime Minister on the plane back to Brisbane following an earlier, more formal meeting with him.
One of the orientation activities Huy initiated was the International Student Amazing Race. These races were team challenges for new students to find their way around the University, a fun and frantic campus familiarisation. Of course there was a competitive element and prizes for the fastest teams. The races became so popular that safe paths had to be established through the campus to stop bystanders being mowed down by the keen teams of students running through.
His line manager at the time, Sonya Breen, says this was clearly his forte.
“He had a way of rallying the troops and getting colleagues behind his ventures (even though most were out of office hours) and getting students participating.”
Huy also displayed his rare gift for empathy and engaging with students as someone who was often the first to respond to critical international student incidents. Sonya recalls Huy’s skill in unhesitatingly handling these stressful events with great care and discretion, no matter the time or day.
Student Services Director Mike Calvert agrees Huy excelled in managing situations just like the one the University community now faces with his loss.
“Huy was just so wonderful dealing with tragedy. He had incredible compassion and would know just what to say and how to support people in their time of need.”
“Always smiling and never saw fault in anyone”
Mike is among many who recall Huy’s capacity for cheerfulness as his life and work became deeply woven together in the fabric of the University.
“I can’t ever recall a situation in which Huy lost his cool, raised his voice or had a bad word to say about anybody. I don’t think I can even recall him ever being in a bad mood. He simply oozed positivity and warmth.”
Another achievement of Huy’s during this period is his work as part of a team developing a water safety programme for international students, the first of its kind, which received national attention.
This initiative and the support Huy offered international students means the legacy of his work is spread across the globe, leaving many students with an incredibly positive impression of the University and New Zealand thanks in no small part to Huy.
“One of the funniest dudes I have ever met in my life”
It was during this time that Huy met Lisa, who was working at the hair salon on campus. Huy went more and more frequently to get his hair cut, while working up the nerve to ask Lisa out. Huy and Lisa were married in January 2013 and Huy became a loving and devoted father to Gypsy, Samantha and Antonia, then to Lydia, and eventually, a proud Pop to Aurora.
Huy took the opportunity while working at the University to continue learning and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Relations between 2003 and 2006. He encouraged his sister Huong, also a Waikato alumna, to enrol in a postgrad paper in 2003. Huy didn’t tell Huong until the first day of class that he had enrolled himself in the same paper!
Lisa says that in 2022 Huy was planning to continue working towards his Master of Management Studies in Leadership Communication. His Student ID photo, of which he was very proud, speaks volumes about his sense of humour.
“An exceptional human”
Huy was a well-known presence around the University, a familiar face at Stacy’s cafe and during Open Days and Orientations. He loved planning and running student focussed events and worked closely with the Waikato Students’ Union over many years. He also had something of a celebrity status within the University community for his particular and unrivalled talent as ‘the voice of Graduation’, a role which he famously poured hours of preparation into to perfect the thousands of names he would read out.
Only a few of Huy’s close colleagues, including Associate Director Events and Partnerships, Shaun van Praagh, saw firsthand the level of care and attention he gave the task of announcing Graduation ceremonies. Shaun says with sometimes only 24 hours between being handed a list of graduands and the first ceremony, Huy would hunker down at his desk, at home, or alone in a green room backstage, studying and reciting names over and over again, phoning graduands to double check pronunciation.
Huy attached great value to the importance of students graduating in front of a crowd with the dignity of their name, their identity, intact, and how much this added to their pride in achieving their qualification. Graduation was the greatest public reflection of Huy’s genuine care for people, their personal stories, and their culture.
His uncanny talent for fostering a sense of calm in any room, or in the case of Graduation an arena, where much could and sometimes did go awry, earned him a standing ovation on multiple occasions for the deceptively simple act of reading a name correctly. Huy’s commitment to inclusiveness is a legacy the University will strive to uphold, and something Shaun says helped bring confidence to all those involved in Graduation ceremonies.
“His ability to connect with people, make them feel special and comfortable, on a personal level, extended to his professional life as well and is an irreplaceable gift.”
“Stellar bloke…a rare gem”
Huy had an immeasurable generosity of spirit, reflected in his willingness to share his vast institutional knowledge with those who needed advice. From making sure a newly arrived international student could find their way around Hamilton to helping a staff member choose a path of graduate study, Huy had time for everyone.
Pro Vice-Chancellor of Waikato Management School, Matt Bolger, describes Huy as a wonderful person, completely dedicated to students, his team, his colleagues and the wider University, and the warmest and funniest person anyone could hope to work with.
“He had a kind of grace about him - the way he brought calm to a situation, the way he immediately made people feel at ease, his strong sense of integrity and intelligence. All this packaged in a person who was quick to help people, and even quicker to laugh and make others laugh.
“He was a rare person, and I think we all just feel lucky to have had him in our lives.”
In his twentieth year of service to the University and 26 years since first enrolling as a student, Huy truly embodied the University of Waikato motto, ‘Ko te Tangata’, with people at the heart of everything he did.
“Full of energy and positivity”
Huy also made time in his busy life for keeping fit. Regularly sighted running along River Road, and known for spending lunch breaks on a run around Hillcrest, on Sunday Huy had just completed a training run for the Auckland Marathon. His sister Huong says he was in the fittest form of his life.
“Such a kind man and loving father”
Family was everything to Huy. The extended Vu family, Hong Nguyen’s real treasure, lives on neighbouring properties on River Road and their bond is greatly admired.
Huy’s University colleagues, students and community are among the many who have benefited from the values Huy learned from his family and shared with us all.
Vice-Chancellor, Professor Neil Quigley, pays tribute to the opportunity he had over the years since moving to Hamilton to get to know and work with Huy.
“It is hard to put into words just how much of a loss this is for our community. He was a wonderful, warm-hearted person, simply one of a kind. But more than that, his loss to our community is magnified by what he represented: the son of refugees whose parents worked extremely hard to give him the opportunity to grow up confident, proud and completely at home in New Zealand while not losing his awareness of his Vietnamese heritage.”
“A bit of sunshine”
Summarising the life and legacy of a person so passionate and forthcoming about his family, his work, his city, his country and his past is near impossible, but in some ways encapsulated by the recollections of the many people whose lives he touched. The subheadings in this obituary are a few of the many online tributes made to Huy in support of his family.
Huy’s story began with fear and uncertainty, but great love, in Vietnam, and while, to the immense pain of an entire community, it has ended sooner than anyone could anticipate, he more than fulfilled the better life he and his family set out to seek:
“I’m proud to say that we love our lives in Hamilton. We are Vietnamese, we are Kiwi, and we are Hamiltonian.”
Farewell, Huy Vu.
Written by Rohani Alexander, with contributions from the Vu family, Neil Quigley, Matt Bolger, Mike Calvert, Michelle Jordan-Tong, Shaun van Praagh, Sonya Breen, Jess Tiley, Jess Vanxay and all of Huy’s colleagues who have shared stories, anecdotes, images, thoughts and words during this time.