Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mike Tharp: From Korea to Merced in 102 years

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Bill Clinton's high-stakes gamble that freed two American journalists in North Korea this week didn't faze one Merced resident.

After all, she was born there.

One hundred and two years ago next week. In the walled city of Pyongyang, capital of the last Stalinist state on the planet.

Evelyn Becker McCune is the Birthday Girl. She comes from one of the handful of American families who have influenced our understanding of the Korean Peninsula -- the Hermit Kingdom, the Land of the Morning Calm -- for more than a century.

And today, living with her daughter Heather McAfee McCune Thompson, she's one of us.

Evelyn's time in Merced with Heather and her late husband Don has been "five times as long as she's lived anywhere else," says Heather. "There was always something over the horizon."

Happily for Americans' understanding of Korean culture, history, politics and art, that horizon often lined her life in both North and South Korea.

She has never been one, however, to limit her horizons. "Even when I was small, my family let me outside (their compound in Pyongyang) because I knew the street language," she recalls in a clear voice with what can only be described as a Korean accent. "You could always get around if you knew how to swear in Korean."

This, from the daughter of a Methodist minister who co-founded Korea's first two colleges, one in the north, one in the south.

The one in Seoul became Yonsei University, undergraduate home of UC Merced's chancellor, Steve Kang.

"She's an amazing lady," he says. "Her family has contributed enormously to Korea. I'm so proud of Evelyn and Heather."

That minister, Arthur L. Becker, also lived in Merced for many years until his death in 1978 at age 99.

Evelyn has whipped Bay Area teenage Sunday school boys into docile rows, carried a caged canary in a car from the West Coast to Michigan in the 1930s, written influential texts on Korean art and a novel about China's only empress.

She worked for 15 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, at a restaurant to help put herself through two degrees at Cal Berkeley. She has left a legacy of kinfolk and students whose lives have been forever favorably changed by her presence in them.

Her force of character and personality reflects that of her father, Arthur Becker.

Evelyn and Heather have written a 476-page biography of this Michigan man who, along with Christianity, taught Koreans to run and play ball. He and his wife Louise spent a half-century of their lives bringing science and music to the young people of Korea, Evelyn and Heather wrote.

She also forged a formidable partnership with her husband, George "Mac" McAfee McCune, also the son of missionaries in Korea. Before his death at age 40 in 1948, he had wooed Evelyn from a sickbed in Hawaii ("a bad ticker!" her father wrote before their marriage), then returned with her to Korea.

For the next 15 years, in Korea and the United States, he became one of the few informed, rational voices about U.S. policy toward the peninsula.

After World War II, for instance, he presciently observed that Kim Il Sung's guerrilla movement in the north was one that deserved U.S. attention. Two years after Mac's death, Kim attacked the south and started the Korean War.

Evelyn's husband also "invented a pronunciation and English orthography system for Korean with Edwin O. Reischauer," later President Kennedy's ambassador to Japan, according to a scholarly paper by Jongchol An.

In Heather's living room, Evelyn peers through her large glasses as if trying to penetrate a visitor's soul. Her chronology, predictably, wavers a little as she looks back over a century of life.

"My father taught the young (Korean) boys to run and kick a ball," she reflects. "He made a difference." Sweat was regarded then as a sign of the lower classes. Her dad made it cool.

"It fits in with my idea of missionaries," she says, leaning forward. "Not stupid little old guys who couldn't get a better position. They're tough people who had to fight to protect themselves."

She was a redhead. Some Koreans thought people who didn't have black hair weren't responsible folks. Some thought red hair came from the devil. They also thought her parents had left her out in the rain and it had rusted.

Bradley Martin, author of the definitive book, "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," knows Evelyn's works well.

"Her parents and parents-in-law were pioneers in Christian evangelism and educational work in Pyongyang, where in the short space of 10 years a complete educational system, from primary to college-level, was introduced," he writes in an e-mail. "The city came to be known as the Jerusalem of Korea."

Norman Thorpe, a former Asian Wall Street Journal bureau chief in Seoul and now at Whitworth University, writes in an e-mail from South Korea that Evelyn's book on Korean art "is a classic that I still use for reference when teaching about Korea. The McCune family's contributions to understanding Korea are still used by many scholars."

Cho Eun-jung, an art critic and historian in Seoul, just found out this week that Evelyn is preparing to celebrate her 102nd birthday.

"I haven't yet had my breakfast," she told Yun Suk Lim, a reporter for an Asian TV network, "but I am no longer hungry! During my lectures when I tell people about Evelyn McCune, many people are very interested to hear about her and her achievements."

Lim, the first woman elected as president of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, says in an e-mail that Evelyn "was able to see things through a different perspective, having lived in Korea for so long and yet being an American. She is greatly admired by many scholars and art critics in South Korea, and many Koreans are truly grateful for her work."

Evelyn moved to Merced in the early 1970s because Heather was here. She bought a house and a duplex, then roamed and wandered where her still-dynamic curiosity took her. She never remarried after Mac's death. "I'd hate to have some punk pushed on me," she says.

Her left ear is scarred by an encounter with a stingray during one of her many one- to three-mile swims to islands off the coast of Wonsan in North Korea.

"It wasn't safe at all to live in oriental countries then," she remembers. "It wasn't safe at all. Sometimes we wondered in such unsafe conditions why none of us got sick. The Lord God took care of us."

Heather moved to Merced after meeting her husband in Washington, where she was one of the first staffers of the JFK/Sargent Shriver Peace Corps. Her husband worked at the Merced College library for many years, and they raised two sons here, both Merced High grads. Heather was a teacher and counselor for decades at Castle AFB's adult school, John Muir and Sheehey elementary schools and with Catholic Social Services until her retirement.

In the presence of these two remarkable women, a guest is almost lifted off the chair from the energy and sense of tradition they both send off in waves.

Think of it: In a comfortable house in Merced, more than a century of important, valuable and unique history resides. One clue to the DNA that binds them and dozens of highly accomplished family members who will gather at the backyard water slide next weekend may be found in a letter Evelyn wrote in 1933 to Mac:

"If my life were in my hands to do as I planned with it, I would wreck it in five minutes, probably -- like the old Gauls who defied the thunder by loosing a shower of arrows into the sky -- pagans with magnificent defiance of the powers that be, with unbroken self-will and determination not to admit defeat -- like that I'd like to be!

"Die fighting and all that, rebellion, protestation or what have you, if it would do you any good. Why not? If defiance, struggle is good enough for a thunderous Wagnerian opera -- not to mention Milton and Homer and Dante and such-like -- isn't it good for one isolated little female soul?"

That soul lives with us here. What the Japanese call "a living national treasure."

Heather, thank you for taking care of her for all of us.

Evelyn, Happy Birthday.

And many happy returns (from The Viking -- and that's our secret)...

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.