WASHINGTON — The first time Terry Knecht Dozier ever smiled was at age 2 1/2, when her new mother gave her a red dress she had made.
The child, severely malnourished and afflicted with stomach worms, was hardly able to walk. She was living in a French orphanage in Saigon, where she and her younger brother had been placed by a Chinese businessman who had second thoughts about his plan to sell them.
"When they brought Terry out, her head was down to her chest, and she was so shy," her mother, Anne Knecht, recalled. "She looked like a little dwarf."
That was 1954, when the French were entrenched in Vietnam and Dozier and her brother, Timmy, became what are believed to be the first Vietnamese children adopted by an American couple.
Today, at 32, many years and miles from her war-ravaged birthplace, Dozier has been named America's Teacher of the Year. She will be studying in China on a Fulbright fellowship this summer. She is South Carolina's alternate choice in the nationwide selection to pick a teacher to fly on the space shuttle next year.
A beautiful, poised woman, she is a strong advocate of America's public education system.
"It is the one thing that I know I could never have received had I not been adopted and brought to this country," she said at a ceremony honoring her Tuesday at the Department of Education.
"Teaching," she said, "is my way of repaying a debt." Today, President Reagan is to present her with the crystal apple award at the White House. This week she has been feted with receptions, lunch with Education Secretary William J. Bennett and press conferences by the sponsors of her award, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Encyclopaedia Britannica Companies and Good Housekeeping magazine.
Dozier was chosen to represent the nation's 2.5-million teachers, whom she calls the "unsung heroes of our schools." She is the 34th teacher to receive the honor since 1952.
"We must restore teaching to its rightful status as a profession," she said.
"We must give our teachers the respect and support they need to accomplish the awesome mission they have been given. For too long, we have taken for granted their dedication and hard work. We have given them greater and greater responsibilities and thanked them less and less."
For those who choose to become teachers, she said "the road is often long, difficult and filled with frustrations. However the challenges and rewards cannot be equaled. The joy we feel at seeing a student's face light up with excitement about what he is learning is unparalleled."
Dozier thinks teachers should never have to leave the profession because of low salaries. Nor should bright students be discouraged, as she was, from entering teaching. Today, she earns about $21,500.
While she looks to her future, she is occasionally reminded of a long ago past that she cannot recall and believes that the ravages of war forced her to forget.
"It's why I'm so conscious of the debt that I owe," she said in an interview.
"I know my life would have been very different. I may not have survived."
What she knows is that her mother was Vietnamese and her father was a former colonel in Hitler's SS who fled Germany during the closing days of World War II and joined the French Foreign Legion. He met and married Terry's mother in French Indonesia. The woman died 20 months later, after Terry's brother was born.
The father sold them to a Chinese businessman who it is believed was planning to sell them to a childless couple. When local authorities learned of the plans, he gave the children to an old Chinese woman living on a sampan in the Saigon River. Discovered there, they were taken to the orphanage. Her real father was later killed.
Terry long ago lost her French. She has no memories of her earliest days and no recall of the long night her new mother spent calming her and her brother after a French ammunition dump behind their house exploded, shattering the windows and cracking the walls.
"I think subconsciously I have blocked that out of my mind," Dozier said. "My parents said I cried constantly for the first year."
Her mother recalls those early days vividly, especially Terry's flowing tears and the comments from acquaintances who called the two kids "lemons" and suggested they be returned to the orphanage.
"It took a lot of vitamins and food for her to change," recalled Terry's proud mother, now living in Charlotte Harbor, Fla.
In fact, it was Terry's baby brother that drew her to Anne and Larry Knecht's attention.
Knecht was a U.S. Army warrant officer stationed in Saigon as an adviser to the French. He and his wife had been unsuccessful adopting a child in the United States, but learned of a small boy who was at the home of a French chaplain because he was too small to stay in the orphanage.
When the Knechts agreed to take Timmy, the chaplain asked if they knew another American couple who might adopt his sister from the orphanage.