One woman and a world of difference

linda_jones.jpg Commencement season is fertile ground for generational assessments as one age group tries to pass off knowledge to another. As I get older, I’m increasingly sensitive to the occasional Twitter post that describes the Baby Boomer generation as one of the worst ever — as I read the other day. It handed its problems off to the incoming powers, and has left a mess to clean up.

But generations don’t change things. People do.

MPR All Things Considered producer Jeff Jones lost his mother a week or so ago. Her funeral was held last weekend and today he distributed this story about her. He kindly agreed to let me print it here, because it’s a reminder that it’s possible to make a difference, but it requires actually doing something.

In 1973, my mother, Linda Jones, was in charge of 18 babies on a so-called “orphan flight” from Seoul, South Korea to Minneapolis. She also had an envelope full of secret documents. Volunteering for the orphan flight was a good way to get to the U.S. for a good price, but when members of the underground Korean pro-democracy movement heard that their friend, my mom, was on a flight that would stop over in Tokyo, they asked for her help. She was to deliver an envelope of papers documenting human rights abuses — including imprisonment, torture and execution — to a contact who would disseminate them to western diplomats and media in Japan. Such papers would have been opened and censored if they’d gone through the mail. A Korean found with them would have been imprisoned, or worse.

My parents went to Korea as teachers and missionaries. But when the presidency there turned into a dictatorship, my mom decided to help the university students she was getting to know to organize a resistance. She helped hide wanted men in her home, sometimes for weeks at a time. She served tea as my father (willfully ignorant about her associates) was questioned repeatedly by the Korean CIA. And she arranged secret meetings between visiting diplomats and dissident leaders. When she botched one such arrangement, it led to the arrest and torture of one of the student leaders.

When her plane landed in Tokyo, a team came on the plane to help with the babies. My mom got off, carrying only the secret envelope (her ticket and passport were with those for the babies). She was to pass it through the decorative openings between the airport’s passenger lounge and the visitor lounge. This method had worked well before. But when she arrived in the in-transit lounge, she could tell something had changed. The wall was sealed. There was no way to connect with Japanese visitors anymore. Knowing time was tight, she decided to leave the in-transit area and step, effectively, onto Japanese soil without her plane ticket and without her passport. The airport was crowded and her only hope was to muscle her way to the information desk. And there, muscling his way to the same spot, was her contact, Dr. Kim. Both were trying to page the other.

The documents delivered and some important verbal messages exchanged, the race to get back on the plane began. Neither of them spoke good Japanese and the check-in, security, and immigration staff could not understand why she had left the in-transit area without any ID. Her only defense was “but who will help with the babies?”

Fortunately, back on the plane, the Northwest Airlines flight attendants were asking the same question. All the other volunteers on the flight were old men who were NOT going to change diapers for the next 10 hours. My mom was the only hope. The flight crew brought the ticket and passport to the security folks who elected to stop asking questions. Three days later, she saw information about the democracy movement from those documents start to appear in U.S. newspapers. (ed. note: Jeff says one of the people who received the documents was former Minnesota congressman Don Fraser.)

For the 19 years after she left Korea, she supported the movement and the missionaries who were aiding it from a cramped office in Chicago. She also raised two kids who complained about the middle-of-the-night phone calls, the boxes full of funny papers she kept around the house and the smell of the food she brought home from meetings. She went back to Korea many times to introduce American women to women there working in sweat shops and brothels. We complained that she wasn’t home enough.

Even if that complaint had been legitimate, in the 10 years since she was diagnosed with leukemia, she made it all up to us. My sister and I traveled with our mom to eight national parks, Canada, and Alaska. She made sure to be healthy enough to attend both of our weddings and hold her first grandchild. We went back with her to South Korea in 2003, where the democratic government gratefully accepted those boxes full of papers that were the only copies of documents long since destroyed in the days of the dictatorship. And I had dinner with the tortured student leader, who looked me in the eye and called my mom a hero.

Nothing has ever been as hard for me as these past two weeks. But I know my mom crammed more living into 65 years than many of us will ever imagine. And I’m still hearing great new stories about her life from friends near and far. I can’t express how touched I was by the card you all sent…I’ve always wondered if cards are worth anything at a time like this. Now I know they are like an anchor when we feel cut adrift. And you have my family’s deep gratitude for the generous donation to the cancer resource center my mom started from scratch in her hometown of Rockford, IL. She cut the ribbon there just a month before she died (video). 150 people have come through the door so far and seen a glimmer of the hope that motivated her entire life.

So here’s today’s commencement message to graduating seniors: Top that.