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Monday, May 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Man fatally beaten in Tacoma led a life of quiet achievements

TACOMA — When a 55-year-old man was found beaten to death on his porch last month, news reports focused on the history of the suspects: three high-school athletes and good students, two of whom were bound for college on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation scholarships.

Now, details are emerging about the victim's past. Dien Huynh was a former college professor with a master's degree in nuclear physics, a devout Buddhist and a polyglot.

In the early hours of April 20, Huynh, 55, spent his last conscious moments on his doorstep, his skull fractured by blows from a hammer. Police think Huynh tried to open the door and call his sleeping brother for help. It was locked. The Vietnamese immigrant, who had lived in Tacoma for 19 years, died at Tacoma General Hospital two days later.

Three teenage boys, students at Mount Tahoma High School, have been charged with his slaying. Pierce County prosecutors say the teens surrounded Huynh outside his home, beat him with the hammer when he tried to run away, then robbed him, taking his keys and his wallet, turning his pockets inside out.

In the aftermath, Huynh's brothers, Minh and Hong, grope through grief, trying to understand how such a thing could happen in what Minh calls a freedom country. Their brother, a lifelong bachelor, was engaged to be married. In a recent interview with The News Tribune and in a letter, Minh described his brother's life.

For years, Minh and Dien lived in the house on South 16th Street, bought with money they saved after coming to America in the mid-1980s.

"Every day, our family members and friends are crying and praying for him, for his soul," Minh wrote in a letter to The News Tribune. "We don't understand why some people can do that to him. We keep asking, why don't they just take his wallet then flee away?"

Dien graduated from the University of Saigon in 1974 with a master's degree in nuclear physics. He taught at the university for six years, until he was pressured to resign by the Communist regime, Minh said. He came to America in 1987, following Minh, his youngest brother, who spent the next two decades helping his siblings reach their new country.

Dien Huynh was a "quiet and decent man," says the Rev. Michael D. Smith, pastor of Foothills United Methodist Church in Bonney Lake, Pierce County.

Smith, a Vietnam veteran, met the Huynhs' father, an Army major, in 1967. Smith, a lieutenant, gave the major his business card with his Tacoma address. He forgot about the encounter until the mid-1980s, when Minh Huynh reached America, carrying the old business card, seeking sponsorship. Smith gave it, and began a long friendship with the family.

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"What you should know about this immigrant family is that they are good people who share your values," Smith wrote in a letter to The News Tribune. "They are smart, tough, resilient, unafraid and very hard workers. They came here with nothing. The only English word they knew was 'freedom.' "

For 15 years, Dien Huynh labored on the swing shift in Renton, a line worker making window coverings for Hunter Douglas, his academic credentials unrevealed.

"Just a quiet man, great employee," said Paul Fergen, general manager. "Nothing but good things said about him. He got along well with everyone. His co-workers called him Dean. They didn't know about his degrees in physics, his command of languages, his six years of university teaching."

"We cannot hold our tears," Minh wrote. "We don't hate whoever killed him, but we are really surprised that they have human faces, but inside they are not. How they can do it?"

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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