Meet Ben Chungho Song, my father. I was fortunate enough to spend Father’s Day with him and my two sons.
Although my father was never a businessman, his life story is quite interesting and has many lessons for all leaders – business and otherwise.
My father was the fourth son of six children to an educated government official in a small town south of Seoul. When the Japanese invaded Korea, my grandfather had a choice of either cooperating with the occupiers or being put to death. He chose to live.
After World War II, the locals labeled my grandfather as a traitor, forcing him into hiding. The locals ransacked the family house. Later, my grandmother died from the hardship of her family. She left behind six children, including a five-month old baby girl. Without her mother’s milk, the baby eventually died of starvation despite all the brothers’ efforts to feed her rice water as milk. Shortly thereafter, the family disbanded as the Korean War ensued.
My father was the rebel amongst the siblings, ending up alone in the streets rather than taking handouts from relatives. He survived following the US military camps so he could dig in the garbage for food. He was recruited by local street gangs but had the presence of mind to resist, at great risk to himself. Such fortitude, however, caught the attention of some American missionaries who took him to a Christian orphanage.
A kind, elderly American couple in Los Angeles decided to sponsor him in the orphanage and gave monthly to his benefit. Touched by the kindness of the missionaries and his sponsors, he decided to dedicate his life to God.
After seminary, he went to the US to thank his benefactors. Once in the US, he was disturbed by all the anti-government riots on the US college campuses during that time (1965). He wanted to tell his story about how he was helped by the American people. There was one big barrier, however. He didn’t speak English. He practiced in front of the mirror for days upon days. He first began speaking in churches with his broken English. Later, he ended up speaking in almost every college campus in the state of California, supported by then Governor Ronald Reagan and actors Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. He later worked with a writer, Cliff Christians, to publish a book about his life, “Born Out of Conflict”, which went into 9th printing, I believe.
For his efforts, my father became the first person ever to receive a missionary visa INTO the US.
Once the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, my father moved to Washington state and refocused his support on the influx of new Korean Immigrants who came after the US government repealed the “quota” on Asian immigrants. He started two of the largest Korean-American churches in Tacoma and handed those off to other pastors, before starting the original Federal Way Korean-American church (Federal Way Mission Church).
He’s retired now. I’ve seen him struggle with retirement. He’s never had much interest in hobbies. His passions are his work and his wife.
My father was a tenacious risk taker. He was passionate about his work, and had tremendous charisma. He was incredibly persistent. He was compassionate and liberal in his teachings within the church. The world wasn’t black and white to him, not after all he had been through. He never told me NOT to do something (other than fighting with my brother). He only told me to make decisions that I can live with. Although an accomplished and articulate orator, he always lead by example rather than words when it came to helping others and living modestly.
My brother, Paul, and I have been involved in various business ventures. Whatever success we may have had can be attributed to our propensity for taking calculated risks, being annoyingly persistent at times, emphasizing leadership by example, knowing how to maneuver in all the grey areas of business, as well as having constant passion and enthusiasm for what we are doing. For that, we can thank our father, who used to walk over dead bodies to dig through garbage for food, but was never bitter at the world.