A lifetime of service to Soldiers ends quietly and with dignity
CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea -- Camp Humphreys lost a connection to its past in July when Mr. So, Song-Hui retired after a 57-year career at the Army Education Center here.
A humble, dignified man, So bridged the years from the Korean War to the current transformation of Camp Humphreys into the home of U.S. Forces Korea.
He began working at the Education Center on June 3, 1959 but his time here began years earlier during the Korean War when he and his family fled their home in Chang Don, north of the Imjin River, when North Korea invaded the south.
So said his parents thought the war would end quickly and they could return to their home in Chang Don. The war dragged on and in 1952 the Republic of Korea government moved them and other refugees to a site by the Anseong River near Pyeongtaek--where the new Camp Humphreys has risen.
When So and his family moved here, a U.S. Marine Air Group occupied a small airfield nearby that launched aircraft to fight the North Koreans. The area that stretched west toward the river was flood plain and under salt water.
"Even before it was cultivated land it was salt water that the tide moved in," So said. "Because no one was using it the government decided to move the refugees there and try to make the salt water stop so they could cultivate the land."
So said the government built a dike around the area to keep the salt water out while retaining rain that fell to dilute the salt water.
His family, mother, father, two brothers and sister, settled in the village of Dodu-ri, other families went to Daechu-ri, Ducheon-ri and Hamjeong-ri.
The government provided the refugees a tent but when the winter came the tent offered little protection from the cold. So said there were tunnels in the village of Hamjeong-ri; his family and others took shelter in them and it was much warmer.
Shortly after they moved to Dodu-ri So's life changed when he met several Marines who were hunting near the village.
I was 13 at the time and had a big burn on my leg and face from an accident, he said. They saw me with the bandage on my leg, they decided to bring me on post to the clinic. They helped me to cure the burn.
The Marines were cooks and let So stay in their barracks. They also fed him and took him to the clinic for follow-up treatment.
While he stayed with the Marines So met a Marine master sergeant named James N. Reid from Jersey City, New Jersey.
Reid's sister was a school teacher and she sent basic English books to him. Reid used these books to tutor So.
"The Marine master sergeant was my first English teacher," So said. "I didn't know how to speak English, 'Yes' and 'Okay' was all I knew how to say."
The Marines collected money and sent So to a grade school at the nearby village of Gaeksa-ri.
When the Korean War ended the Marine Air Group moved south to Pohang and then to Japan. So went with them to Pohang but stayed only a year because his family still lived in Dodu-ri.
So returned to Dodu-ri and sought work. The Army had taken over the post when the Marines left and he worked briefly with a U.S. Army Quartermaster unit in the MP Hill area.
"I spoke a little bit of English, they thought they could keep me as a houseboy for a while. Not very many people spoke English at the time. That was kind of my first career."
Working as a houseboy didn't suit So and he quit after a couple of months. An Army specialist named McGaugh encouraged him to take an elementary typing class at the education center. He did and when he finished McGaugh told him the education center was looking for clerical help.
"He took me to CPO (Civilian Personnel Office) and I took the typing test, it was all red marks.
Somehow, fortunately they hired me as an education clerk. This was unbelievable, thank God it happened. Maybe God helped me, I don't know…someone must have helped me. I was a good typist later on," So said smiling.
When So began working at the Education Center, the post was known as South Post K-6 under Yongsan--Seoul Area Command. The Education Center was in a Quonset hut, one half of the building was for classes and testing, the other half the administrative office. The noncommissioned officer in charge, an Army sergeant first class, also lived in the building.
So's typing and English language skills improved over the years and he earned an associate's degree.
Early in his career he made a difference in the lives of the Soldiers who used the Education Center.
Soldiers who took classes with the University of Maryland asked whether the college credits they earned here would be recognized by the colleges in their home states.
No one at Humphreys could answer the question so John Strong, the director of the education center, sent queries to a number of American universities and colleges. So typed every one of them.
"I have kept this letter, this is the type of letter that I sent to many colleges in the states," So said.
Did the colleges recognize the credits?
So showed a reply from Loyola University of New Orleans.
"This is the reply, most of them did," he said with pride.
The pride he showed on the job was clear to his supervisors and peers. Geraldine Hicks, the Education Center director said that So was an indispensable member of the staff and a perfectionist who strove to do things correctly.
"He's been my go-to guy when I need something done," Hicks said. "We're going to truly, truly miss him."
Sonny Wolfe, a field advisor for Central Texas College, has worked with So since 1990. He praised him for his dedication and commitment to his work.
"Mr. So is extremely-dedicated, he's helpful, well-connected," Wolfe said. "He's just outstanding and a gentle personality."
Just before he retired, Hicks took So out to the new land to see the construction projects underway here. It was the first time he'd seen it up close and a lifetime away from the land he and his family settled on in 1952.
"It's amazing, it's like a miracle," So said. "It's just unbelievable."
So's retirement plans are simple: spend time with his family--a wife, a son, two daughters and two grandchildren--and take care of his health.
He offered a final thought on his 57-year career.
"I hope I helped Soldiers to change in a positive way."