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Don Luce, 88, devoted to raising people above misfortune here and in Southeast Asia

Sept. 20, 1934 – Nov. 17, 2022

Don Luce is most remembered for exposing the cruel “tiger cages” in which prisoners were held during the Vietnam War, but his efforts to relieve human suffering reached far beyond that.

When he first went to Vietnam, he was an agricultural adviser, helping to improve the lives of poor farmers.

Stepping away from international concerns after 40 years, he devoted his energies to the needs of those close to his home in Niagara Falls through the Community Missions of Niagara Frontier.

“I believe each of us has a responsibility toward other people,” he told The Buffalo News in 2006. “Whether you’re in Vietnam or in Niagara Falls, there are so many disadvantaged people who have the ability to rise above their misfortune.”

He died Nov. 17 in Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center after suffering a sudden cardiac ischemia. He was 88.

Born in East Calais, Vt., one of four children and a descendant of passengers on the Mayflower, he grew up on a 220-acre dairy farm. He earned a bachelor’s degree in farm management from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in agricultural development from Cornell University.

In 1958, he went to Vietnam with International Voluntary Services, a church-based aid group that was one of the models for the Peace Corps and was supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Sent to Ban Me Thuot, a small province in the Central Highlands, he became fluent in the Vietnamese language and helped local farmers grow higher-yielding varieties of sweet potatoes, a staple in their diet.

Transferred to Saigon in 1960, he became country director for IVS the following year. Initially a supporter of the Vietnam War, his views changed after he began teaching at the College of Agriculture at the University of Saigon and saw how his students were tortured after they were arrested at anti-government protests.

Asked to help get some of them freed from prison, he bought a carton of Marlboro cigarettes and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky and spent an evening with the prison director. It worked. Bearing more cigarettes and whisky, he returned half a dozen times. 

He began speaking out about the brutality of the conflict and the need to understand Vietnamese culture. He testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees in 1965, where he met Sen. Edward Kennedy, and he was among a group of IVS leaders who resigned in 1967 and sent a letter to President Lyndon Johnson opposing the war.

He returned for a year to Cornell, made speaking appearances and joined with former IVS team leader John Sommer to write a book, “Vietnam: The Unheard Voices,” with an introduction by Sen. Kennedy. The book contended that American military actions “created more Viet Cong than they destroyed.”

When he returned to Vietnam in 1969 with press credentials from the World Council of Churches, he lived above a brothel in Saigon and served as a translator and source of information for American newspaper and television correspondents. He helped arrange the release of three American journalists being held in Cambodia.

After learning of the “tiger cages” in a prison camp on Con Son island, he alerted a congressional staffer, Tom Harkin, a future Iowa senator, who was visiting Vietnam in 1970 with a delegation of congressmen. A group went to investigate, with Mr. Luce as their interpreter.

Photos of the caged prisoners were published in Life magazine, igniting an outrage that led the American government to force the South Vietnamese to close the prison. The South Vietnamese government moved to deport Mr. Luce. A few days before he was due to leave, he found a poisonous snake in his bed.

Reporting his expulsion, Time magazine wrote, “Don Luce is to the South Vietnamese government what Ralph Nader is to General Motors.”

Back in the U.S., he joined with other former IVS members to create the Indochina Mobile Education Project and toured the nation in a van. At each stop, he cooked a traditional Vietnamese meal.

In the late 1970s, he arranged for freelance journalist Edward J. Rasen to get an interview in Cuba with the prime minister of Vietnam and served as interpreter. Rasen then teamed him up with an ABC-TV film crew to go to strife-torn Cambodia for what became an award-winning documentary, “This Shattered Land.”

On that assignment, he was invited to a chicken dinner with dictator Pol Pot and convinced the murderous Khmer Rouge leader to free several political prisoners, including a leading Cambodian film actress. 

Opposition to atrocities under the Shah of Iran took him to Tehran with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark on a fact-finding trip in 1979, followed by an interview with then-exiled Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris. He also was pictured on the front page of a New York City tabloid being dragged away by police from a demonstration against the Shah’s wife at the United Nations.

He had just come back from seeing the Ayatollah when another encounter in a Greenwich Village gay bar changed his life. Soon after meeting, he and Mark Bonacci became deeply devoted to each other. When Bonacci received a fellowship in 1981 for postgraduate studies in psychology at the University at Buffalo, Mr. Luce came with him. After same-sex unions became legal in Vermont, they were married there in 2009.

As Bonacci completed his doctorate in psychology in the 1980s, they bought foreclosed houses at auction in Buffalo, fixed them up and sold them. Mr. Luce turned his attention to helping the fight against AIDS in Southeast Asia. When he was invited back to the IVS as chairman in 1991, he spent much of his time in Washington, D.C.

He came back to Niagara Falls in 1997 to teach sociology for two years at Niagara County Community College, where Bonacci is a professor. Bonacci also was active in Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, which runs a soup kitchen, offers mental health services and provides beds for the homeless in Niagara Falls. When he told Mr. Luce in 1998 the organization was looking for a public relations director, he jumped at the opportunity.

Through Community Missions, he and Bonacci were instrumental in establishing Mark’s Place AIDS Hostel, a halfway house for people with AIDS in Niagara Falls which closed about five years ago.

“We try and help each individual reach his or her potential. You try and find the spark that will lift them up,” he told The News in 2006.

“I get a rush when one of our people at Community Missions gets a high school diploma or finds a job,” he added. “It’s exhilarating.” 

Mr. Luce worked with Community Missions for 20 years and, after he became development director in 2003, he ran and publicized a wide array of fundraising activities – a Gospel Fest, a Lobster Fest, a Sweetheart Dinner, a golf classic, an annual 5k walk, a rubber duck race and auctions of donated antiques.

He also made annual return trips to Vietnam to see friends and former students. On one visit, he reunited with some of the prisoners he freed from the tiger cages. On other occasions, he led groups of Vietnam War veterans.

“He did not focus on villains,” said Bonacci, who is his only immediate survivor. “He never demonized or vilified the American G.I. He always felt they had been as ill-used as the Vietnamese people.”

A celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, 1570 Buffalo Ave., Niagara Falls. It will be videotaped and posted on YouTube.

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