Maintenance Supervisor Soy Try-Chhee retires after 45 years
The day after Soy Try-Chhee and his wife, Patty, got married, he walked into the Stroum Jewish Community Center for the first time to interview for a job. Forty-five years later, he wrapped up his last day as the Maintenance Supervisor, when he retired on December 2.
He saw a lot of change at the J during those four decades: the addition of the Early Childhood School wing, the creation of the Kesher Community Garden, six executive leaders, thousands of community members, and so much more.
One of the most memorable upgrades for Soy was the installation of the new boiler system. “On cold winter nights I had to ‘babysit’ the old boiler,” he said. That meant spending the night at J—sometimes for a week at a time—to keep the boiler from freezing overnight so it would be warm enough to open our doors in the morning. “Those were long weeks,” he said with a laugh.
That sense of ownership for keeping the place running was just a given for Soy. “This is my place,” he said. “This is my house.”
Soy first arrived in the United States in 1975, fleeing the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge. After months in a California refugee camp, he was sponsored to come to Washington by a church in Bellevue. Although he was fluent in Cambodian, French, and Thai, he didn’t speak much English and was worried about his ability to communicate. He’s grateful the J’s Executive Director at that time took a chance on hiring him. “It was a dream to come here to the United States,” he said. “I had to do everything I could to survive and feed my family. I learned English from TV and from being at the J—I learned all these skills myself.”
Early in his career, Soy wanted to open opportunities for others who had immigrated to the U.S.—and many worked with him for decades. Vandy Vorng, who has worked on the J’s maintenance staff for 25 years, said Soy always had his back and knew how to get things done. “I’ve learned a lot from Soy. He knows everything about this building,” Vandy said. “He always takes care of his staff and helps us when we need it.”
Soy lives by strong principles, which he instilled in his staff. “I believe in myself to do the right thing and I tell that to my staff too—that’s why they trust me and why I trust them,” he said. “It’s the same thing I taught my kids: be honest, tell the truth, and respect each other.”
These principles are a big part of what former Facilities Director Matt Grogan appreciated about working with Soy. “When Soy felt respected, he would do anything for you to make things work—and he did a lot over the years,” Matt said. “There are few people who are as caring and concerned for others as Soy. That’s why people love him so much.”
For Soy, the J was more than a workplace, it was his community. He has countless stories about opening the doors for 5 am regulars, hearing the seniors in the Golden Age Club argue over their penny-bets while playing cards, running into members at the airport and chatting like old friends. “I love the people here a lot,” Soy said. “They became my friends, and they feel like my family.”
Soy especially enjoyed seeing kids he knew as preschoolers return to the J as adults with their own kids. One of those former preschoolers is the J’s CEO, Amy Lavin.
“For the last 45+ years, I have watched Soy hustle through the J, keys a-swingin’ from his belt. I remember him when I was a toddler and though I’ve aged, he’s still the same,” she said. When Amy returned to the J as a mom, Soy still remembered her, her siblings, and her parents. “He has always taken care of this building and the people in it,” she said. “That deep connection and ownership is rare in life and something we should all cherish.”
Although Soy brushes it off with modesty, the extent of his impact on the J is truly undeniable. “Soy’s legacy will never be matched,” Matt said. “It’s like records in sports—his will never be broken.”
While it was a difficult decision to hang up his key ring, Soy looks forward to seeing the J continue to grow and expand to serve the community he loves so much. “Years from now, I hope I can come back and tell my grandkids that this is the place I came to in the States and built my life.”
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