A chance encounter leads to a story of immigrant success

May 24, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Correspondent John Larson heads out on a reporting trip and discovers a powerful story en route. The young man sitting next to him in coach reveals his immigrant family's success story and their fierce devotion to America.

This report originally aired on December 22, 2103.

JOHN LARSON: As a correspondent, I’ve travelled more than 2 million miles on assignment, usually in a hurry, rushing to one story after another. But along the way, I noticed that the most powerful stories – often weren’t where I was heading to or coming from at all, but in between.  And usually, sitting right next to me.

For example, I was flying American Airlines 2473, Boston to Dallas.  I was in 21C. Next to me In 21B: Normandy Villa.

As we headed south across the skis above Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Normandy shared such a story with me, that when his family invited me to join them six weeks later near their home in New Jersey, I accepted.

To understand what’s going on here, you should know two things: first, even though the family comes  from Colombia, Normandy is named after one of the more important moments in American history: 

NORMANDY VILLA:  The Battle of Normandy in France, in 1941 was the beginning of the liberation of Europe, and my grandfather saw that as such a powerful moment in history, that he wanted to have his family carry a name that referred to a new dawn.  And so, the first born in the family received the name Normandy.

JOHN LARSON: That first born was this man, Normandy Sr.

Which brings us to the second thing.  Senior would also hear something American that would inspire him.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country …

NORMANDY VILLA:  It really was a call to service… to make your society better than it is and leave it better than it was after you’re gone, and he never really forgot that. He never really forgot that  It really stuck with him forever.

JOHN LARSON: As we flew towards Texas, Normandy told me how his parents had been comfortably middle class in Colombia, when the drug Cartels began destroying what his parents valued most…. respect for public service, and education. JFK’s speech struck a nerve in his father, who that day decided to begin the long process of legally bringing the family to America.  Normandy’s oldest sister, Alba was a little girl when the family arrived in New Jersey.

ALBA VILLA:  We slept on couches, living rooms, spare rooms depending on the family’s circumstances.

JOHN LARSON:  Because their Colombian credentials didn’t transfer, Normandy’s mother, a literature teacher would spend the next 25 years working at near minimum wage as a day care assistant . Here, she remembers saying goodbye to her mother. 

NORMANDY’S MOTHER:   I remember her saying are you sure? Are you sure you can make it over there, are you sure you’re going to be okay?

JOHN LARSON:    Normandy’s father, a college educated chemist and statistician, wound up laboring  25 years in America as a stock-boy, lifting boxes, until one box finally broke his back.

ALBA VILLA:  i think they really sacrificed their own dreams…

MARCELLA VILLA:  Their lives their dreams their professional aspirations they put aside, for us, because they believed that we could do something better here.

JOHN LARSON:  So, in their small, two-room apartment in New Jersey, their mom emphasized literature.  Their Dad tutored them in math from his Colombian college textbooks.

And what happened?  Alba, the oldest, went to the Ivy League’s Brown  University and on to law school.  Marcella also went to Brown, then medical school.  Third child David went to Harvard.  And, while I’d like to tell you that the youngest, my seat mate Normandy – went on to college  without incident, it didn’t happen that way. 

As we flew the our last leg into Dallas International, I learned one month before his freshman year in college, Normandy was almost killed in a bicycle accident. 

NORMANDY VILLA: That was a huge blow to me.

JOHN LARSON:   He was in a coma for days, his brain so damaged that when he finally woke up, he couldn’t see very well, or think clearly. And yet he attacked his rehabilitation with such determination that his father, perhaps the strongest man he knew, began calling him ‘el trucador’, the fighter. He entered college on time, a full year before doctors thought he could do it.

MARCELLA VILLA:  He is one of the people i most admire in this world. He’s just something else,

JOHN LARSON:   Five weeks after I met Normandy he graduated from HarvardUniversity, the fourth in his family to earn an Ivy League education. They’d done it with scholarships of course, but when I asked him how his parents could even afford this week-long trip to Boston for the graduation, he said “Oh, some guy sent us $3,000”  When I asked who, showed me the guy. 

NORMANDY VILLA:  Here is Bill Gates. He’s an honorary Colombian.

JOHN LARSON:  There’s Bill Gates, and Normandy wearing the tie.. Normandy is a Gates Millennium Scholar, one of 40 thousand academically gifted students who Gates will help put through college over several years.  Gates’ message to the scholars sounded almost identical to what Normandy’s grandfather and parents had said: live lives of service.

BILL GATES: i hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you treated people a world away that have nothing in common with you but their humanity. Good luck. 

JOHN LARSON:  And so that’s what Normandy and his siblings will do: serve: in public health, medicine and the law.

Oh, by the way, when his father went to Harvard for his son’s graduation, he visited the Kennedy School of Government there, and found the words that launched his American Dream so many years ago, written in stone.

JFK SPEECH:  ‘…but what you can do for your country.”

JOHN LARSON:   So you can maybe understand why my seat mate’s graduation party was something not to be missed

Before I left Normandy and his family, there was one more celebration, when they took me on a favorite field trip.

NORMANDY VILLA:  For him its a symbol of liberty and symbol of opportunity.

JOHN LARSON:   The Statue of Liberty, just a couple miles from their apartment, was a yearly destination for the family,  and its as good a place as any to end this story.  Normandy’s father said the promise that brought them to America had almost nothing to do with making more money, or having a big house — remember, they had that.  It had more to do with what his father heard it in the guns of Normandy, and what he heard in JFK — that Americans at their very core are people who serve others.

When you meet the Villas, and understand their sacrifice, you can’t help but wonder if maybe the Great Lady’s gaze is not scanning the horizon for opportunity as many believe, but instead checking to see what we’ve done with ours.

When we arrived in Dallas, I didn’t know Normandy would soon invite me to his Harvard graduation. But I knew his story was better than the one I was flying home from.  That’s the thing about flying coach.  You don’t really find great stories, they find you. Which I would learn again very soon, when I met Donna….. but she is an entirely different story.