The greatest stories often slip by quietly and unnoticed.
Tam Mai, 48, a custodian at Belmont University, immigrated to the United States from Vietnam along with his wife, Phuong, and two sons, Vinh and Chau, in November 2003. His story is the real life American Dream.
“I has five dreams: the first, I dream my sons finish college; I dream I own my own house; I dream I become American; I dream I visit my old country again; and last one, I dream I finish my dream to draw – I learn the art,” said Mai in his broken English.
Mai has worked continuously to make his dreams come true, working two jobs to send his eldest son to pharmaceutical school in Memphis and saving for his youngest son, who hopes to attend Belmont.
The halls and offices of the Wheeler Humanities Building are covered in pencil sketches, wood carvings and paintings he has done of and for the faculty members and occasionally students. Nearly every office has some sort of portrait or landscape that Mai drew specifically for them hanging on their wall. And each faculty member will gladly brag about his or her Mai original.
Two paintings created by Mai are proudly on display in the office of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in Wheeler.
In Wheeler, Mai is a celebrity in his own right. With claims to fame including but not limited to: artist, poet, dedicated employee and genuinely nice guy.
It’s hard to dislike Mai.
“He always has a smile on his face, always. I have never seen him down in the dumps. He is always so pleasant and never complains about anything, ever,” said Susan Barnes, a public relations professor at Belmont.
A few years ago, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bryce Sullivan, along with many other faculty members and staff with offices in Wheeler, wrote letters to custodial services to keep Mai after it was announced he would be transferred to Pembroke Hall. Eventually, their voices were heard and Mai was not reassigned to another building.
“He’s been with us in this building for about three years now, which is very unusual. Belmont’s faculty staff relocates custodians every year or so. And when it came time for Tam to move, well we just didn’t want that to happen. So the staff wrote letters to try and get him to stay and it worked. And were really happy to have him here with us,” Barnes said.
Bonnie Wagonfield, administrative assistant of the School of Social Sciences, remembers how happy Mai was when he found out he wouldn’t have to go to another building.
It meant so much to him that the faculty rallied together to keep him. This really is a strong work community, she said.
Monday evening, 14 paintings, all Mai originals, were proudly hung on the walls of the Leu Art Gallery in the Lila D. Bunch Library. The Wheeler Humanities Building sponsored the event as part of their 12th Annual Humanities Symposium. Each piece depicted Mai’s experiences in his native Vietnam and also some of his observations of Belmont. A meet and greet with Mai was held during the show. And he also gave a small speech, saying just how humbled and thankful he was to be given this opportunity.
The gallery was packed with students, faculty and family, who continue to support the custodian’s dreams.
View the “Life and Love:’ Tam Mai slideshow to see his gallery show.