Truc Deegan spans Vietnam, Iowa City and Asia’s most ancient art form

Dick Hakes
 |  Special to the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Truc Deegan, 77, dressed up for her interview.

“Those aren’t your painting clothes,” I noted, teasing her upon arrival at her quaint home tucked near the woods off Black Springs Circle, one of Iowa City’s older neighborhoods.

She wore a trim, classic herringbone suit.

“No,” she admitted with a grin. “They are not.”

The ice broken, she brought tea and we settled at her dining table to talk about her artistic talent and her intriguing backstory interlaced with the Vietnam War.

Her talent is clear from the exquisite watercolor of a hummingbird and flower painted on special absorbent paper and pinned down by round metal paperweights on the table before us. Truc (pronounced Chook) is well-known in this territory as an artist and teacher of Chinese painting, an ancient medium traced back some 2,400 years.

But if her art is enchanting, her past might be considered even more so by my Boomer generation, which was imprinted by one of the most controversial wars in U.S. history.

Truc was born in the ancient city of Hanoi, to a homemaker mother and a father who was a civil servant.

“My parents had an arranged marriage,” she said. “My mother was 15 and had never met my father until their wedding day. They had nine children.”

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Truc was 10 years old in 1954 when the country was split in two after 80 years as a French colony. Hanoi was filled with tension and uncertainty, so her parents fled the communist north and resettled the family in Da Nang in the democratic south.

“A huge American ship helped us move there,” she told me. “It was three days and three nights, and all I can remember is that it was so much fun. My older brother and I went up on deck to watch the ocean and the crazy sailors. They would eat bananas, then throw the peels on the deck and slide along on them.”

Truc notes that her family was part of an operation by the Military Sea Transportation Service titled “Passage to Freedom,” which was said to have transferred 300,000 refugees from North to South Vietnam during this time.

In Da Nang, her mother established a jewelry shop and her father became a South Vietnam federal worker. The shop had a back room where six goldsmiths handcrafted jewelry.

Truc and her siblings helped operate the business. Nearby, her grandmother sold Chinese herbal medicine from another shop.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘If you work, you eat; if you don’t work, you don’t eat,’” she told me.

When American involvement in the war escalated in the 1960s, U.S. soldiers patronized the jewelry store partly because Truc and her siblings were more fluent in English than their own parents or the other business owners in the city.

When she reached traditional marrying age in a society of arranged marriages, she boldly resisted the custom. Her parents did not give up, however, and would invite marriage prospects and their families to the house for formal introductions and tea, unannounced to her.

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“I had a sixth sense that someone was coming to meet me and I would quietly disappear,” Truc said. “I made up my mind to choose my own husband. I saw so much unhappiness in the arranged marriages of my sisters.”

Then one of the young American soldiers visiting the shop caught her eye. He was Jim Deegan of Iowa City, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s ROTC program and the pilot of a helicopter gunship in the war. They fell in love.

Both the French and Americans were foreigners and out of favor at this time, so when it came to actually dating, the couple had to be careful.

“We could not even hold hands,” Truc said. “If we met in public, I had to cross the street.”

When they married in 1965, her family attended, but it was a subdued civil ceremony instead of the usual Vietnamese wedding extravaganza. Deegan finished his second tour of Vietnam two months after the wedding and took his new bride back to his parents’ home on North Street in Iowa City, the house where Truc and he now live.

“I remember his mother standing at the front door right there, the tears and the hugging,” Truc told me, pointing toward the entrance to the home. “Jim was coming home after two years in Vietnam and he weighed just 129 pounds.”

Truc blamed her husband’s physical condition on the oppressive heat of tropical Vietnam and the stress of the war, especially for helicopter pilots. He had lost one of his co-pilots during one flight, plus he had been wounded himself and given a Purple Heart on another.

She was welcomed into his Iowa City family with a huge Thanksgiving feast that was better than any wedding party she could have imagined, she said.

“People were so kind,” Truc reported.

She quickly adapted to her new home and became a U.S. citizen in 1970.

Amazingly, everyone else in Truc’s family was eventually able to leave Vietnam, even her grandmother, who at age 80 traveled alone, first to Paris, then to the United States in 1978. All nine children are still living — seven in the San Francisco area, one brother in Texas and Truc in Iowa City.

Not all had a smooth exit from tumultuous Southeast Asia. One sister’s husband, a pharmacist, decided the family should stay in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the communist regime. He was soon told he would be transferred north for a one-week “re-education camp.”

“He packed for one week, but they kept him there for five years,” Truc said, shaking her head.

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That family eventually escaped through a harrowing trip by fishing boat to Thailand, then spent three months in a refugee camp there before joining the others in San Francisco.

Jim Deegan went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. After teaching anthropology at universities in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the U.S., he brought the family back to Iowa City. Truc worked for a local bank for 25 years and Jim developed a new career in real estate.

Truc’s first exposure to the art of Chinese painting came from a master painter in Malaysia named Ang Swee Hin.

“Most students took lessons from him for three months,” she said. “I learned from him for four years. He was so good. You can never learn enough from a master.”

Truc eventually taught Oriental brush painting overseas, then after raising her three sons — all UI graduates — she retired from the bank in 2002 to concentrate on her art. She has since held several exhibitions, earned honors for her work, serves as a board member for Arts Iowa City and continues with public and private classes.

Truc tells me she remembers being inspired early in her career by the ancient temples, tranquil mountains and ocean landscapes that surrounded her in Malaysia and Vietnam. Today, you might see a focus in her work on birds, flowers, fish and insects.

However, her favorite subject from the start has been the bamboo plant.

“My name actually means ‘bamboo’ in several languages,” she revealed. “It was just luck — something I did not realize until I was deep into my art.”

Luck, she adds, also presented her a good life in a new country. She sometimes refers to herself as a “war bride” and takes no offense over the term.

“The war was bad — all wars are bad,” Truc said. “But something good came out of that war. I met my husband, we had children, and we have grandchildren now. And all my family made it here. This is the best country.”

You can view Truc’s art this weekend, Dec. 18-19. She will display at the Holiday Market Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Iowa City Recreation Center; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Winter Farmers Market at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. Learn more about Arts Iowa City, it’s Artifactory program, gallery, art classes and exhibitions at