DETROIT (WWJ) – For nearly 40 years, one man has stood at the helm of the Southeast Michigan Red Cross. But now their leader is stepping down and being bestowed the highest honor imaginable – a letter from the White House.

As WWJ’s Kathryn Larson found out,  it all began with a phone call 38-years ago. Jim Laverty, a Vietnam War Vet, was approached by the Red Cross to translate for 175,000 Vietnam refugees.

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Despite Laverty’s fluency in Vietnamese, he wasn’t sold on volunteering until the Red Cross answered one question.

“I said ‘If you wouldn’t mind telling me who told you that I speak Vietnamese,’ and they finally admitted that it was my mom, bragging about her son,” said Laverty.

That bragging led to Laverty spending years with the organization. His service ends this month with a personal letter from President Obama.

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Laverty says he was excited to see the black felt tip pen signature.

“It’s a unique signature and he’s a unique individual, but I’m proud to have that letter,” he said.

Laverty now plans to frame the letter and look at it fondly, as he returns to Vietnam to teach English.

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The letter Jim Laverty received from President Obama.