“Whang Keun-Ok: Caring for Korea’s Children,” Ensign, Oct. 1993, 46
Thirty frightened girls packed their meager belongings in their scarves and trudged through the streets of Seoul, South Korea, to the home of Whang Keun-Ok. The house wasn’t really big enough to hold so many people, and the girls didn’t know what life would hold outside the comparative security of the orphanage where they had grown up. But they wanted to follow the woman they loved and trusted like a mother. They also wanted to participate in the church her example had led them to: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The pilgrimage on that November night in 1969 marked the beginning of Sister Whang’s Tender Apples Home—only one of the charitable projects which she considers her life’s mission. But her dream of serving began much earlier, when she was a young girl in Japanese-occupied Korea. A devout Presbyterian, Whang Keun-Ok worked on a farm by day, and by night prayed that she might be able to go to school so that she could work for God. She hoped to study medicine; her people were dying from lack of proper health care. But because of the subordinate role women occupied in Korean society, this seemed an impossible goal.
In time, however, her prayers were answered. She was able to attend junior high school in Jeryung and in Seoul, working at the same time so she could pay her tuition. She studied hard and was an honor student. After graduation, she enrolled in nursing school.
But life was difficult in her country. Poverty was widespread, and the Korean people were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their cultural customs. Sister Whang herself was expelled from school for not worshipping the Japanese emperor. Because of such persecution, Whang Keun-Ok and several friends made an oath to dedicate their lives to making sure others wouldn’t have to endure the same struggles. Later, after Korea won its independence, they converted that oath to caring for those who had suffered in the wars that ravaged Korea—particularly the children.
When the Allied Forces liberated Korea on 15 August 1945, Sister Whang remembers that “every creature, even trees and mountains, seemed to joy for the freedom that we had fought for for a long time.” The joy didn’t last long. The country was divided; Communists controlled the north part of Korea, and many people tried to escape to the south. Sister Whang got out of North Korea on the last train that left before the fence went up. She immediately began working in refugee camps, teaching the children and caring for those who were hungry and cold.
“I prayed for my solemn mission,” she says. “I knew I wanted to help as many poor people as possible, even though I didn’t think I had the ability, skill, or power. In order to do that, I knew that I would have to sacrifice worldly possessions, and I knew that I must always fortify myself spiritually.”
Sister Whang’s work in the camps led her to change her career from nursing to teaching. But after six years, in November 1958, she decided that if she wanted to fulfill her goal to help the poor, she needed more education. Her minister encouraged her to apply for an exchange program at the University of California at Berkeley. She was accepted. Taking the money she had saved from teaching and the promise of a paid sabbatical from her school, she enrolled.
Soon after she arrived in the U.S., Whang Keun-Ok met two Korean students from Brigham Young University who were working at Berkeley for the summer. They encouraged her to go to Provo, Utah. When she visited the BYU campus in the fall of 1959, she fell in love with the mountains and was impressed by the Latter-day Saints’ faith. She spent the next three years there studying social work. Shortly after she returned to Korea in June 1962, she looked up the missionaries and was baptized.
In 1965, Sister Whang was appointed superintendent of Song Jook Orphanage. Jini Roby, who lived there from the time she was eleven until she was fourteen, remembers that Sister Whang “was always scurrying in and out, in and out. But she always had a smile. She knew all of our names and what we were doing, and she would ask about our specific situations.”
It was less than two years into Sister Whang’s administration that Stan Bronson arrived on the scene. A native of Blanding, Utah, Stan was stationed at the U.S. Air Force base in Seoul and wanted to spend his off-duty hours doing worthwhile projects. He decided helping children would be just the thing. When he inquired about orphanages in the area, Church members referred him to Sister Whang.
When Stan—who is six feet, four inches tall—first met Sister Whang, he was struck by the fact that she was unusually tall for a Korean woman (five feet, seven inches) and by her air of dignity and self-assurance. But he was even more impressed by how comfortable she made him feel. “She has a wonderful spirit about her,” he says. “She’s dedicated, sweet, polite—one of those people who you know are sincerely interested in you.”
Stan told her he could play the guitar and that he’d like to come and teach the girls some songs. “I went out a few days later, all proud of myself and ready to lift their spirits,” Stan remembers. “But Sister Whang said, ‘Before you sing, Brother Bronson, the children have prepared something for you.’ For the next half hour or so I listened to the most beautiful music—and I felt pretty small.”
Stan organized the girls into a choir and taught them songs in addition to those they already knew. “‘Give,’ Said the Little Stream” became one of their favorites, because Sister Whang and Stan taught them that they all had something they could share, no matter how small. Stan (whom the girls called Daddy Big Boots because of his seemingly enormous feet) and the girls began performing at the U.S. military bases, and that autumn they recorded an album, Daddy Big Boots and the Song Jook Won Girls.
“The group lifted the kids so much,” Stan recalls. “It took them from what the Koreans call surregi people—which means trash—and made them celebrities. They had a record album, they were singing on national television, the U.S. ambassador and the South Korean president were making a fuss over them.”
Sister Whang was anxious to have the choir succeed; she hoped to use the money the girls earned from their appearances to build a school for them and for other poor children who couldn’t pay tuition. Stan says she was “a public relations genius. For example, when the record was released, she told me that we were having a party at the high school to announce it. She said we were inviting President Park Chung Hee, president of South Korea; U.S. Ambassador William J. Porter; and General Charles H. Bonesteel, head of the United Nations command. ‘How are you going to get guys like that to come?’ I asked. She just laughed. ‘Well, in President Park’s invitation I told him that Ambassador Porter and General Bonesteel were invited. In General Bonesteel’s, I said President Park and Ambassador Porter were invited. And in Ambassador Porter’s, I told him the others had been invited.’ All three showed up at that little high school in Seoul.”
In the meantime, the girls learned that Stan was a Latter-day Saint. “Some of us had never heard of Mormons before, and some of us thought they were pagans,” says Jini. “But the only thing that seemed weird about Stan was that he was so tall. One day we said to him, ‘You’re such a nice person. It’s hard to believe you’re Mormon.’
“‘Why?’ he asked. ‘Your superintendent is a Mormon.’”
Jini was translating for the group, and she remembers sitting there stunned as the other girls begged her to tell them what Stan had said. Since the orphanage was sponsored by another religion, Sister Whang had agreed not to discuss her beliefs. The girls had known she was Christian, but that was all.
From the animated reaction, Stan knew he had said something he shouldn’t have. But it was too late. The girls started asking Sister Whang about her church, and soon several of them began going to the mission home to hear the discussions. Some were baptized. When the orphanage’s sponsoring religion found out, authorities told Sister Whang she would either have to convert to their church or find a new job.
It was then that Sister Whang decided to start an orphanage of her own—the Tender Apples Home. She received permission to invite those girls who had been baptized or who were interested in the Church to come and live with her.
Keeping the orphanage afloat financially was a constant challenge. Stan worked in the United States to raise money and find sponsors for the girls, and he says Sister Whang was “out beating the pavement all the time, drumming up support. She was good at opening people’s hearts and getting them to believe in her work,” he reports. “I think it was because she was so sincere.”
Eugene Till, who served as president of the Korea Seoul Mission from 1974 to 1977, believes that Sister Whang’s persistence also played a major role. “She’d tell you what she needed, and she’d accept nothing less than total fulfillment,” he says. “She’d never take her eye off a goal until it was accomplished. You can understand that kind of determination when a person is going to gain something from her work. But when the results of Sister Whang’s efforts came—clothing, money, food—she didn’t keep any of it for herself.”
Equally as important as supporting her girls temporally was giving them opportunities to feel the Spirit. Jessica Lyon Ohn, who spent three years in the Tender Apples Home beginning in January 1975, remembers that days started for the girls at 6:00 A.M. with hymn singing, prayer, and scripture study. Sister Whang got up before the girls so she could pray and study the scriptures, then stoke the fires so the house would be warm when the girls woke up. Monday evenings were set aside for family home evening, and Sister Whang made sure the girls had money for bus fare so they could attend church each Sunday.
Sister Whang taught her girls to help spread the gospel. When Brother Till arrived in Korea in 1974, he learned from a survey that only 10 percent of the people in Seoul were aware of the name of the Church. During his three years as mission president, he and his missionaries concentrated on changing that. With Sister Whang’s permission, Brother Till assigned several elders—who formed a singing group known as New Horizon—to work directly with the Tender Apples choir to put on a musical show that would introduce the people in Korea to the gospel.
The group became immensely popular. Through it all, Brother Till remembers, Sister Whang “taught the girls that they shouldn’t be too proud of themselves, because they were just doing what they were supposed to do.” At the end of three years, more than 70 percent of the people in Seoul recognized the Church’s name.
One of Sister Whang’s major goals was to place as many of her girls as possible with Latter-day Saint families. Of the eighty-four children she brought up over a period of nearly twenty years, thirty-three were adopted into Latter-day Saint homes in the United States. At least twelve have married in the temple, and nine have served full-time missions.
Also of utmost importance to Sister Whang was that the girls learn responsibility and be treated as equals. They were each assigned chores around the home—preparing food, washing clothes, and cleaning—and they were each expected to use the home’s resources wisely. Jessica remembers a time when one of the girls threw away a blouse that could have been repaired. When Sister Whang found it in the garbage, she lectured the girls on not wasting. Then, at the next home evening, she gave everyone a plastic sewing box full of needles and thread and taught them how to mend.
Eventually, Sister Whang grew too old to keep up with the 24-hour-a-day demands of running the orphanage, and she was forced to close it. But even though the girls no longer live with her, she cares about them still. Rosemarie Slover, former matron of the Seoul Korea Temple, says that when she and her husband, Robert, returned to Provo five years ago, Sister Whang asked them to check on her girls who lived in Utah, especially fifteen-year-old Suzette Marble, who had just left Korea and would be homesick. Sister Whang corresponds with many of her girls, and her small, sparsely furnished room—she now rents the rest of her house in Seoul—is filled with pictures of them and their families.
And the girls feel an equal amount of care for their “mom.” In October 1990, when she escorted several children who were being adopted by families in the United States, the “Tender Apples” gathered from far and near to see her. Brother Till speaks of watching her greet her “children,” a broad smile on her face and tears in her eyes. As each woman arrived, oftentimes with husband and children in tow, Sister Whang would encircle the entire group in a massive hug and hold on as if she’d never let go.
“I’ve never seen Sister Whang show such emotion,” remembers Brother Till. “She’s normally a pretty cool customer. It was especially touching when I thought of what might have happened to those girls without her. A couple of them probably wouldn’t have survived. The rest of them probably would have ended up as servants or living on the street. Sister Whang truly provided physical salvation for those girls—and gave them the opportunity for spiritual salvation by introducing them to the gospel.”
But Sister Whang’s selflessness extends beyond her girls, to everyone she meets. “She has a heart big enough for the whole world,” smiles Jini. “She can accept and love anybody.” Jini saw this illustrated vividly five and a half years ago when Jini went to Korea to find her brother, from whom she’d been separated twenty-eight years earlier. He was now an alcoholic, both mentally and physically ill. He had no home, no money, no job—nothing but the tattered clothes on his back. Jini was forced to place him in a government institution.
Since family members were required to provide patients’ personal items, Jini called Sister Whang. Could Jini leave money and have Sister Whang phone the institution occasionally to see that her brother had the things he needed? Sister Whang promptly agreed. But instead of calling, she traveled to visit the man each week. By then the principal of a large preschool and kindergarten, she took nearly a whole day off work to bake him treats, ride the bus to the institution, then sit with him and hold his hand, even though he could give her little response.
“I couldn’t believe she did that,” says Jini. “She had never even met this guy. But she said, ‘I look forward to it every week.’”
“If there ever was a ministering angel,” says Stan Bronson, “she’s one. I believe with all my heart she was raised up by the Lord for these purposes.”
Through it all, Sister Whang—one of Korea’s gospel pioneers—has done all she can to help build God’s kingdom on earth. She served for many years as district Relief Society president, and she has been a temple worker since the Seoul temple opened in 1985. She asked to officiate two days each week instead of the normal one, reports Robert Slover, former temple president. Why? “She says it’s the Lord’s work,” explains Suzette Marble, “and she would do anything for Him—and be happy to do it.”
Sister Whang’s example has changed the lives of all who know her. “She never talks about what she’s done, but just goes about her work in her own small, quiet way,” observes Sister Slover.
“I think of her every day,” says Jini, “and I use her as a role model. She has taught me that one person can make a difference.”