To make a living in a new country, Hi Sun Ko did a lot of different jobs. He ran a dry cleaners. He was a stock broker. He sold insurance. The work supported his family and earned...
To make a living in a new country, Hi Sun Ko did a lot of different jobs. He ran a dry cleaners. He was a stock broker. He sold insurance.
The work supported his family and earned a water-view home in Mukilteo. It may not have matched the promise of his youth in South Korea, where Mr. Ko was a standout graduate of the Seoul National University law school, but he found other outlets for his intellect and restless spirit.
He wrote poetry and essays about nature and the immigrant experience. And his weekly travel columns in Korean-language newspapers helped introduce his countrymen to the Northwest’s natural splendors, while offering gentle life lessons.
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Mr. Ko died of a heart attack Monday at the age of 58. He was stricken after learning his wife had been injured in a car accident. Her injuries turned out to be minor, but Mr. Ko, who had long suffered from high blood pressure, collapsed in his car in the hospital parking lot.
His funeral is at 11 a.m. today at Onnuri All Nations Church in Edmonds.
Mr. Ko’s writings were widely read, said Eun Hee Kim, a reporter for Korean Weekly and The Christian News, the two Federal Way-based newspapers that published his work.
“Most Korean people in this area know his name,” she said. His weekly Northwest Explorer column was beloved for the way it helped acquaint Korean immigrants with the landscape and history of their new home.
“A lot of Korean people don’t know about this region, even though we live here,” Kim said. “He loved to travel, and he would write about it in a poetic way — not just what he saw, but how it made him feel.”
Born in Inchon, Korea, in 1946, Mr. Ko’s childhood memories included fleeing from bombings during the Korean War and hiding out in the bottom of a boat to escape the violence.
He was an exemplary student at Jemulpo High School, one of the nation’s top boys schools, with entrance exams as rigorous as for Ivy League colleges in the United States.
“It’s not like here, where you go to high schools because of location,” said longtime friend Charles Huh. “At that time in Korea, we went to a good school because we wanted to — but you had to be able to pass the tests.
“He was one of the brightest students.”
The shared experience forged lifelong bonds, with Jemulpo graduates like Huh and Mr. Ko participating in alumni associations.
After high school, Mr. Ko was one of the even more elite group admitted to Seoul National University’s school of law, considered the South Korean equivalent of Harvard.
But when he graduated, he had no enthusiasm for practicing law under his country’s increasingly dictatorial regime.
“He saw a lot of unjust things happening,” Huh said. “Korea was trying to develop economically, and in the process, a lot of civil rights were oppressed.”
In 1980, Mr. Ko and his wife, Young-Hi, brought their two young sons to the United States, settling first in Florida. Mr. Ko earned a master’s of business administration from Florida Institute of Technology, then moved his family to California in search of work.
“His life was not as successful here as it might have been in Korea,” said Byung-Kyu Maeng, president of the Washington chapter of the Seoul National University Alumni Association, which he and Mr. Ko helped revitalize. “He couldn’t do what he really wanted, which was be a writer or lawyer.”
But whatever his occupation, he worked hard at it — a trait that carried over into his community service, Maeng said.
Whenever there was work to do for the alumni association, which is partly a support group for first-generation immigrants and partly a social-service organization, Mr. Ko could be counted on.
He organized gatherings, orchestrated the menus and cleaned up afterward.
“He was a very low-key person, but whatever it was, even a dirty job, he would always volunteer,” Maeng said.
He used his essays and columns to reach out to other immigrants and help ease their way. Sometimes he offered his own experiences as an example, detailing the frustrations as well as the opportunities posed by life in America.
For a recent travel column on the Longview area, Mr. Ko retold the story of Sacagawea, for whom a local lake is named. But he took the story further, Maeng said, by exploring what Korean immigrants could learn from the frontier resilience.
“He was always asking: Who are we? What do we need to do as immigrants?”
Mr. Ko had more time for his writing after the stock-market slump of the early 1990s, when he quit his job as a broker and started selling insurance in Lynnwood. He was assembling his essays and hoped to publish them as a book.
Mr. Ko is survived by his wife; two sons, Michael and David, both of Seattle; a sister, Yoo Sun Ko, and a brother, Hoong Sun Ko, both of Korea.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org