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  DR. HAING S. NGOR: The Lasting Impact Of His Life and Death

Certain phone calls you never forget. Twelve years later, I still remember vividly the one that roused me from deep sleep at around 5:30 Monday morning, February 26, 1996.

It was my friend and Screen Actors Guild board colleague, actor-activist Sumi Haru. She never called that early, and as she quickly apologized for having to do so, I knew something was up.

“I waited until now,” she said calmly. “I want to give you a head’s up -- your phone is going to be ringing off the hook in about 15 minutes.” I remember yawning and asking why. “You’re the designated media contact for Haing Ngor,” she answered. Pause. I was alert now, waiting for the reason. “Jack,” Sumi said, “your friend was shot last night.”

“Where? You mean they got him in Cambodia?”

"No,” Sumi said, “here in L.A., in his garage.”

“I didn’t even know he was back,” I said, sitting up in bed. “He didn’t call me to pick him up at the airport. Well, which hospital is he at? I’ll get dressed…”

“Jack,” Sumi said, her voice still calm, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but Haing S. Ngor is dead. Murdered. You’d better get ready for the press. I just didn’t want you to have to hear this from them first.” 

Sumi’s call prepared me for the media, but hardly the full impact the tragedy would have on my life. Stunned, I hastily began compiling biographical and career data on Dr. Ngor, along with images I’d taken of him on our various human rights crusades together. As I gathered the materials and made notes, there were persistent questions on my mind: “What about the foundation we just started a few years ago? What about our orphanages and schoolhouses in Cambodia?” 

The phone rang again 20 minutes after that wakeup call. It was KNBC newsman Furnell Chatman, asking to bring a cameraman to film an interview at my place in two hours. Several other reporters called soon after, scheduling times throughout the day, ending with a mid-afternoon People Magazine interview at SAG headquarters, where a board meeting would follow, just before my call time that evening to work on a movie near the USC campus. It was going to be one hectic Monday. Fine -- there would be so much to handle, I wouldn’t have to deal emotionally yet with the loss of a man who was like a brother to me, like a devoted son to my mother.

It was now 6:30. Still in a daze, I made coffee and went out on the balcony. A gloomy dawn was quietly emerging from the darkness of Sunday, Feb. 25.

Inhaling deeply the wintry ocean air, I prayed fervently for God’s guidance as the tragedy slowly began sinking in. I didn’t feel like I could run the Haing Ngor Foundation without Haing Ngor, but then who would? Was it really important to continue our work on behalf of his beloved Cambodia and the Khmer people? What about his legacy as an Asian American hero – Khmer Rouge genocide survivor, Academy Award-winning actor, a champion of human rights. Was it necessary to keep alive Dr. Ngor’s legacy? I implored God Almighty for direction.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere came two silver-white doves…flying incredibly fast…right at me! I was so amazed that I couldn’t budge, even knowing they were on a collision course with my face! Then, just as suddenly, the magnificent birds stopped in the air, wings gliding, staring at me for the quickest instant before they turned and flew back toward the sea, into the gray horizon of a new morning.

I got the message, the answer to my prayers. When Furnell Chatman arrived, he offered his condolences, then took care of some interview prelims as his cameraman set up. He asked for the spelling of my name for the on-camera ID, and was there any sort of title I wanted besides “Friend & Actor”?

Without hesitation, I said: “Executive Director of The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation.”

One of the longest days of my life had commenced, and I was filled with the purpose of my life for the days to come.

Jack Ong
 Santa Monica, CA
 February 2008
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