Rex Fleming’s funeral is today. His life and death have touched many. For me it has brought back fond memories of the time I was able to spend with Tom Kim before his death. What follows is a personal remembrance I wrote about Tom. Prior to this posting I had only shared this with a handful of people. I hope that this posting will serve to prolong Tom’s legacy and to remind us all that we are only passing through.
Tom Kim had lived a lot of life by the time we became acquainted. Since his arrival in the U.S. as a young man, he had earned various degrees culminating with a Ph.D. in Economics. This was followed by a full-blown academic career ranging from achieving a rank of full professor at Texas Tech University before moving on to serve as president of McMurry University for over 20 years. He couldn’t bear an idle retirement and so continued in academia as a faculty member, first for Abilene Christian University and then for Hardin-Simmons University.
Meeting Tom Kim
I first met Tom at a “new faculty party” for the college of business at Hardin-Simmons. Tom loved to recount the circumstances of our meeting. As a new faculty member, I was meeting many of my colleagues for the first time. Tom introduced himself to me and upon hearing that my discipline was computer science, announced that I should plan to handle any regular computer problems myself, but that he would be happy to take care of the especially difficult problems for me! The part of the story that Tom never repeated, though, is that Charles Walts overheard our exchange and vociferously assured me that Tom would be no help at all with my computer problems!
We had a good laugh, but the true humor of that exchange was revealed when Tom repeatedly called me into his office when he needed help on his computer! As our friendship grew I began to announce, prior to providing “computer help”, that I charged $150 per hour for my services. Over the years Tom developed a number of comebacks for my announcements. His most successful was that he was charging me an equivalent amount for tidbits of Abilene news that he provided on occasion.
The “Book Club”
Other than occasional visits to Tom’s office to answer computer questions I had little interaction with Tom during my first year at Hardin-Simmons. It was at about that time I made a decision that turned out to be life-changing. I had begun reading a book and decided that I would benefit from hearing a wise economist’s viewpoint on the material. In a precocious move, I visited Tom’s office and asked if he would be willing to read a book and meet with me once a week to discuss it. I will forever remember Tom’s response because he did not give me an immediate answer. Instead he asked about the book and then told me he needed time to think about his answer.
The next day, to my relief, Tom agreed and we began meeting. It was no surprise that our discussions encompassed far more than our reading material and a friendship ensued. Before we had finished our book Tom suggested that we choose another book to start as soon as we had finished the first one. After completing several books, Tom began to dub our meetings the “Book Club.”
The Book Club meetings continued weekly up until shortly before his death and evolved over time. One of the more dramatic changes was the admittance of Mike Monhollon into the Book Club. The extension of membership to Mike was preceded by much deliberation on the part of Tom. He was hopeful that Mike would be a dedicated and worthy member, but didn’t want to ruin a good thing! Part of the cost of membership to Mike was that he had to agree to eat Thai food each week. Of this agreement, Mike was reminded often!
Another tangential development of the Book Club was that when Mike was unable to attend (often as a result of his deanly duties), Tom and I would still meet–but not discuss the book. Over time, we began to share many meals that were not related to the Club, but were just two friends enjoying Thai food together.
I learned many things about Tom during our lunches. One fact that became quickly evident was Tom’s devotion to his family. Whether speaking of his faithful wife, his over-achieving siblings, his highly successful children, or his beloved grandchildren, Tom was eager to discuss his family. His grandchildren, in particular, were a favorite conversation piece.
Tom also, on occasion, gave insights into the profession of collegiate academia and helped me understand some of its mysterious workings … though, much remains a mystery to me. During our lunches I learned small parts of his upbringing. Of particular interest was that Tom grew up in China as a result of the Japanese occupation of Korea. His father was a Korean patriot who help maintain a provisional Korean government in revolution against the Japanese occupiers. From that background grew a collection of siblings who seized life by the horns and used education to provide security for themselves and their families.
Lessons from Cleaning an Office
Another opportunity to learn more about this great man came with an assignment he gave me shortly before his death. Due to ill health, Tom had decided to forgo teaching and asked me to clean out his office. One of the first insights I gained from this experience was that Tom didn’t throw anything away! In a similar vein, he preferred to use graph paper for note-taking and had squirreled away a stack of graph paper tablets well over 2 feet tall. For each tablet there must have been 3 or 4 binder clips that were recovered as well. There was no shortage of red pens, either! I’m no psychologist, but I suspect the tendency to keep so many supplies on hand was a natural reaction to the stress his family must have endured living as refugees in Shanghai, China.
On a less trivial note I learned that Tom was a giver and receiver of thank you notes. I had on one or two occasions been the recipient of one of his very gracious, hand-written thank you notes. I found that he kept copies of many notes he had written over the years. I also learned that he had been, at least once, the recipient of the “Outstanding Citizen of Abilene Award”. It was interesting that one of his hand-written notes was to congratulate an individual for receiving the same award.
As I sorted through papers and books, there was evidence of an economist who had been highly active in his profession. There were a number of published articles, his own text book on the mathematics of economics, and notes from aspiring academics who he mentored.
More prominent than his professional record was an obvious devotion to teaching. As I sorted through folder after folder of class notes, it became clear that Tom had re-written notes from one semester to the next. Each notebook was filled with hand-written notes, graphs, and copies of current articles printed from the Internet. Many of his hand-drawn graphs were copied onto transparencies for viewing on an overhead projector. I assume that his preference for transparencies over presentation software was related to the fact that my hourly consulting rate was so high.
Although I tried to be careful not to read any confidential material I would sometimes catch glimpses of various items in my attempt to decide whether they should be kept, shredded, or recycled. The only comment from student evaluations that I read said this:
I think Dr. Kim knows economics better than the people who wrote the text book. His illustrations make the material easier to understand.
That’s an assessment to which I aspire, though I suspect it will take more than 60 years of teaching for me to arrive!
Questions to Ask
After I finished the project of sorting through Tom’s office, I took a couple of boxes of “high priority” items to his house along with lunch that my wife brought in from Szechuan Chinese Restaurant. I didn’t realize that would be the last time I would see him in person. The process of sorting Tom’s papers caused me to do a lot of thinking about what a person might find if they cleaned out my own office. I suppose the complementary question is
What would I want for a person to find if they cleaned out my office?
I’m still working on answers to those questions. In the mean time I’m left with a hole where Tom used to be and am getting a glimpse of of how one can drift over time from hanging dearly on to life to a place where the draw of those who have passed before makes moving on a natural next step. One thing I admire about Tom is that he was learning, growing, and making friends up until his death. He was in his mid- to late- seventies when we first met. He had no shortage of friends when I came into his life and yet he gave me access to his rich history and wisdom.
Although I miss Tom I’m thankful for his investment in me. I hope I will be able to emulate much of his life and that when mine is done we’ll together enjoy some delicious Thai cuisine and recount the story of how we met.
(orginally penned on 26 Mar 2012)
Its going to be okay. The first person you’re going to see is Jesus.
—Colton Burpo to Harold on his death bed in Heaven is For Real