South Korea Connection
It was both a time and a place far removed from the small Oklahoma farming town where Kathryn Spurgeon grew up.
It was South Korea in the early 1970s and her experience would stay with the young Spurgeon for the rest of her life.
During 1971, the Vietnam War was still a conflict concerning the Republic of South Korea and the presence of Kunsan, the military air base located in the town of Gunsan. Its presence brought an influx of American troops into the country. It also brought military wives like then-19-year-old Spurgeon. Bypassing the rule that spouses were not allowed to join their husband or wife at this base, Spurgeon came to Korea anyway—as a tourist, and as a result, had to live off base just like a local.
“I grew up in the countryside of Oklahoma, very sheltered, so it was a big shock for me. I’d never been out of the country, never seen poverty like that,” Spurgeon stated. “It was a hard time for Korea—a lot of beggars on the street and no running water in the houses. You had to bleach the food or you’d get sick, so it was sort of like camping. It was a big change for me.”
Despite the difficulties, Spurgeon grew to love the food and even the rice paddies. She also fell in love with the people, especially the children. “I learned that we can adjust to our surroundings more easily than we think we can,” she said. “I also learned I had a heart for children because I started helping with all the children in the orphanage.”
That orphanage was called Il Mag Won where a woman named Park Kung-Hee (also known as Mrs. Park), along with her husband, dedicated their lives to approximately 100 children age five and younger.
Spurgeon, being a young girl far away from home before the advent of the internet, had little support when she and her husband made the decision to adopt a child. She didn’t know much about raising a baby but she knew it was the right thing to do.
Treasure was not even a year old when Spurgeon adopted her. The new young mother resolved to continue going back to the orphanage every week to help out.
It wasn’t long before Spurgeon felt called to adopt another child, a toddler named Gina.
By this point Korea was so ingrained in Spurgeon’s heart that even when her husband received orders to relocate to another base, she stayed behind in Korea on her own, work- ing and living in the orphanage. “I was trying to help with all the babies, but I learned things that helped me later in life,” she said.
After living in South Korea for two years, Spurgeon did finally come home to Oklahoma. She and her husband had a third daughter, Mistie. Then they divorced and Spurgeon found herself a single mom raising three children on her own. She persevered, went to college and then put her daughters through college. “You do what you have to do,” Spurgeon said. “I guess maybe when you’re younger you adjust more easily. If you have to take care of three kids, you just do it.”
She remarried after her kids were grown and now she and her husband live in Edmond. They help welcome and look after the international students at the University of Central Oklahoma. “I get to know them and help them because I understand what it’s like to be far away from home,” she says.
A strong desire remained through the years for Spurgeon to return to South Korea but it wasn’t until this past summer that Spurgeon had the opportunity to go back to the country. She was also eager for her daughters to come with her.
It had been almost 40 years since the last time she was there. Korea had greatly developed, with new infrastructure, buildings, subways and even Starbucks. But the endless rice paddies, the culture and the food still greeted Spurgeon upon her return.
Although her son currently runs the orphanage, Mrs. Park, now 92 years old, was there to greet her. She is still dedicating her life to looking after the children. And plans for new construction will also allow older children to call the orphanage home.
“That was probably the highlight of our trip for me, to meet her again,” Spurgeon said. “She didn’t speak English, but her son did so he interpreted for us. She’s a very sweet lady. She remembered us and she said there were only five babies that were adopted through the base in that town and so she was pretty happy to see us.”
Park was sympathetic to hear Spurgeon had been a single mother. “She asked me, ‘Well, was it difficult to raise your daughters by yourself? I’m so sorry for that.’ I replied ‘No, you raised hundreds of babies.’”
Spurgeon and her daughters spent two weeks in the country seeing the sights, absorbing the culture and sharing Spurgeon’s memories. “It meant a lot to them and it meant more to me to go with them than by myself—to share all the stories with them and for them to see where they’re from,” Spurgeon said.
She feels everyone should travel if they get the chance. “I think travel opens up a person’s mind,” she said. “It opens up your mind to other cultures. It’s a smaller world than we think it is.” It grew even smaller when Spurgeon crossed paths with a young woman in San Francisco who had been adopted from the same orphanage. In fact, she had been there as a baby the same time Spurgeon was there.
“Growing up on a farm, I never thought I’d be involved in another country but it’s been a big part of my life,” Spurgeon said. And for this Edmond resident, South Korea is not very far away after all.