The Best and The Brightest / Valley Valedictorians : N. HOLLYWOOD HIGH SCHOOL : Dedication Pays Off for Child of Refugees

Times Correspondent

In a cramped apartment on a gritty, graffiti-marred street east of Chinatown, Betty and Alex Lee are living the American dream.

The Chinese refugees, whose parents escaped to Vietnam after the Communists took over, fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in search of a better life.

With two young boys already born and two more to come, the couple arrived in the United States in 1979, penniless and in debt to relatives for the cost of the passage.

Just 15 years later, their second son, Timmy, is preparing to address his classmates at North Hollywood High School as the second valedictorian in the Lee family.


“My dreams are filled already,” Betty Lee said, her eyes shining with tears as she looked at Timmy, sitting across from her in the family’s tidy living room in El Sereno, where her sons’ academic medals and awards line the walls. “I tried my best. I just wanted my sons to be good citizens.”

They are turning out to be much more than that.

The oldest son, who was valedictorian of his class at Garfield High School, is studying medicine at UCLA.

Timmy, a 17-year-old student of the Highly Gifted Magnet at North Hollywood--who plays tennis, piano and violin--will head to Stanford in the fall on a combination of loans and financial aid.


“My parents had a great influence on me,” he said. “They taught me honesty, integrity and respect.”

For the first nine years of his life in the United States, Timmy slept on one of two bunk beds in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his parents and three brothers. His father rose at 4 a.m. every morning to deliver baked goods to local markets. His mother stayed home and taught her sons to read and write, starting when they were 18 months old. She encouraged all of them to play piano and took them to a local community center for art lessons.

Timmy said he owes much of his success to his parents, who taught him the value of hard work.

“I know a lot of smarter people,” Timmy said. “But they are not as dedicated. They didn’t come from a poor family. When you come from a poor family, you don’t take a lot for granted.”


An eager teen-ager with a bright smile and confident air, Timmy sat down at the centerpiece of the room--a polished mahogany piano--to demonstrate his musical talent with a nearly flawless rendition of “Everything I Do, I Do for You.”

His parents listened as the apartment, decorated with Buddhist statues, Chinese art and children’s drawings, filled with music.

“I never pushed my boys,” Alex Lee said. “I encouraged them.”

Timmy, who took the school bus to and from North Hollywood every day, said his accomplishments did not come easily. He studied several hours every night and had to forgo the trendy clothes and parties that some of his friends enjoyed. But instead of regrets, he said, he has gained a bit of wisdom that he looks forward to passing on to his 650 classmates at the upcoming graduation ceremony.


“They’ll want to know how I did it,” he said. “I’m more than happy to share. I think it’s mostly the parents, but you have to be determined.”