For more than a decade, Dr. Joseph Ha was an important part of Holt — a friend and ambassador, a supporter and advocate. When he died in 2010, after only a year of service on Holt’s board, he left behind a remarkable gift — one that continues his mission to bring education and opportunity to those less fortunate, and defines his personal legacy.
THE FIRST FEW TIMES Dr. Joseph Ha spent Christmas at Holt’s Ilsan Center — a long-term care facility in Korea — his wife and daughter had no idea what he was doing.
Perhaps they thought he was away on business, which was common in his role as Nike’s vice president of international business and government relations. As a Korean man himself, with an extraordinary talent to make and connect friends, Dr. Ha spent a lot of time overseas, particularly in Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia.
However, Dr. Ha wasn’t in Korea for business — he was there for a party, one that he threw every year for more than 10 years.
Ilsan is a very special home, and one of Holt’s most historically significant programs, since it was the first care facility in Korea to offer a loving, permanent environment to orphaned and abandoned children with special medical needs. Dr. Ha‘s passion for Ilsan and Holt International’s work in the region prompted him to come every Christmas bearing gifts — Nike coats and shoes, toys and treats — and anything to make the residents feel special. Susan Cox, Holt’s vice president of policy & advocacy, says that Dr. Ha came to know many of the children, as well as Harry and Bertha Holt’s daughter Molly — who devoted her life to caring for the residents at Ilsan.
“Most years, he would be there to celebrate with the kids, wearing a Santa suit and laughing and having as much fun as the children,” Susan says.
Dr. Ha’s daughter, Karen Chi, says the orphans inspired her father. This is perhaps rooted in the fact that Dr. Ha was himself an orphan.
There are gaps in Karen’s understanding of her father’s childhood, perhaps because Dr. Ha also found his youth to be a bit of a mystery. Dr. Ha was orphaned during the Korean War, or at least he thought he was. He also had memories of older and younger siblings, so he often wondered if he had been abandoned — maybe, he thought, because of his very small stature. Even in adulthood, Dr. Ha stood barely 5 feet tall.
As a young child, Dr. Ha lived on the streets of Korea, taking on odd jobs to survive. He worked as a shoeshine, and also took jobs on an army base. Eventually, with the support of government scholarships and Christian missionaries, Dr. Ha traveled to the United States to study at the University of Washington. He found a job on a ship, which would pay for his passage to school. He arrived on U.S. soil with 25 cents in his pocket and little formal education.
Despite the odds, Dr. Ha graduated with a political science degree from the University of Washington and then earned a master’s degree and doctorate in international relations and Russian studies from Columbia. When he returned to the Northwest in 1971 to teach at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, he told his colleague Jane Atkinson that it didn’t matter that he wasn’t handsome or tall.
“What I have is my mind,” he told Jane, pointing to his brain. His mind was, indeed, brilliant, but also never able to forget what it was like to be an orphan.
IT’S RUSH HOUR in Portland, on a rainy January morning and Michelle Glaser Jackson navigates through traffic on her way to meet with a client for the marketing and strategic planning consulting business she started in 2004, after years in management at Nike and Intel.
Michelle can remember a time when the thought of fitting in at a corporate setting in a big city seemed improbable. Born and raised on a farm in Tangent, Oregon, Michelle’s childhood might have been idyllic in its rural landscape, but it also left her with a sense of otherness when she arrived at Lewis & Clark College in urban Portland as a college freshman. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t fit in, but rather an internal feeling that left her wondering how to fit in with the new, seemingly dazzling group of people who appeared to know how to dress and talk and be worldly, in a way foreign to her.
Then Michelle met Dr. Ha.
Dr. Ha took Michelle under his wing — pushing her to do well academically, to take opportunities, and he connected her with the people who could help her achieve success. He offered support — and a little polishing — which opened doors Michelle never thought possible. He guided her through the nuances of academia, and generously gave his time and advice. Joe even introduced Michelle to his wife, Kay, a brilliant and generous woman in her own right, who became like an aunt to Michelle.
“It was my most vulnerable moment, and he was there to help me,” Michelle says. “Maybe Joe recognized in me a loneliness that he had. Joe included me, and expected the best from me. It made all the difference in the world.”
Michelle wasn’t alone. She was one of perhaps hundreds of students who Dr. Ha quietly mentored.
John Bates, the former honorary consul general of Korea for Oregon and a former faculty colleague at Lewis & Clark, says Dr. Ha deeply valued education, and took seriously his role as a professor and mentor.
Dr. Ha pushed students and asked the best from them. He pushed them into graduate schools, and wrote remarkable letters on their behalf. Dr. Ha had an inherent ability to form a bond with people, and his web of connections was so diverse and expansive, it could never be mapped. He consistently offered those connections to help his students find jobs and opportunities. He also privately and somewhat silently funded the educational pursuits of many international students — some who his fellow faculty members knew about, and some they didn’t.
Jane, now the provost at Lewis & Clark, says that for Dr. Ha, “education was the route to an extraordinarily productive, successful and rewarding life — and he wanted nothing less for his students.”
In many ways, Dr. Ha embodied the collective mission of Holt — personally emphasizing and supporting educational opportunities, giving those born with fewer privileges a head start, and caring deeply for people — especially children.
However, Dr. Ha kept much of his philanthropy secret, whether it be financial contributions or personal help. Even at Holt, staff knew little about the enormity of his gifts to Ilsan and to other programs. This was intentional on Dr. Ha’s part. He gave generously, and kept his generosity secret to a great extent — often giving anonymously or in honor of others.
“Joe, of course, was very charitable,” John Bates says. “I’m not sure we will ever uncover all those gifts.”
DR. HA’S WORK as a professor, and later at Nike, meant he spent a lot of time traveling. He was passionate about Korea and Asia, but also about Russia. Dr. Ha worked to overcome common barriers of religion, politics and culture among the people he met. Some say Dr. Ha became a Soviet Union expert because he wanted to unite people who feel separated by barriers of culture, language or religion.
He often took his connections — the people he met and those he helped — and introduced them freely, even connecting Holt with individuals who have come to play a vital role in our programs overseas.
“Whenever we needed an advocate,” Susan says, “Dr. Ha would get on the phone.” Devoted to our mission, Dr. Ha would help us form partnerships with individuals and organizations that could help us better serve children in the countries where we work.
“Dr. Ha took everything he had, and made it available to you,” Michelle says. “That’s just the type of friend he was.”
Dr. Ha truly cared about the people he met — and he took special care to make his friends feel special. Dr. Ha knew that, even in her later years, Bertha Holt was an avid runner and for many years he would send a pair of Nike shoes to her at Ilsan or to her home in Eugene, Oregon. Bertha could have purchased her own shoes of course, but Susan says she took great joy in the pair she knew she would receive each year from Dr. Ha. She waited for them to come in the mail. On occasion, Dr. Ha delivered them himself.
When Bertha died, Dr. Ha contributed airfare to help ensure that every one of her children could travel to Korea for her burial.
DR. PATRICK WANG RECALLS walking through Yunnan Province in China with Dr. Ha in 2005 during a Nike business trip. Dr. Wang had been a student of Dr. Ha, and they met at Lewis & Clark in the ’80s when Dr. Wang was a visiting scholar and Dr. Ha was the chair of international affairs. Like many of his students, Dr. Ha pushed Patrick to excel academically and later wrote Patrick a recommendation letter to Columbia. After Patrick finished his doctorate at Columbia, Dr. Ha hired Patrick at Nike in 1999, and they worked together closely.
As they walked through the Chinese city that day, Patrick recalls passing an orphanage with a small door to the street. Attached to the door was a donation box. Dr. Ha stopped to read a sign about the orphanage, pulled out his checkbook, and dropped a check in the box.
“People might pass by the door without noticing it,” Patrick says. “It was one of many doors on that street. I was very touched by his action.”
Over the course of his life, Dr. Ha gave of himself deeply and personally. When he died in April 2011, hundreds of friends, colleagues and former students gathered in Flanagan Chapel at Lewis & Clark, the same chapel where his wife’s service had taken place just two years earlier
“The whole stage was covered in flowers,” says Jane. “One huge wreath with a long ribbon came from the President of the Republic of Korea and another came from the Korean ambassador to the United States.”
By the time Dr. Ha died, he had received many prestigious awards and had amassed more than a dozen honorary doctorates from universities in three countries. He served on many boards, including Holt’s, which he joined in 2009. For his service to Ilsan, Holt honored Dr. Ha with our most prestigious award, the Bertha Holt Award, in 2010.
Still, his most important accomplishments were those that didn’t come with a plaque or a title. While preparing a eulogy for Dr. Ha, Michelle spoke to many of his students and friends, and she remembers literally hundreds of people say the words, “If it wasn’t for Joe, I wouldn’t have my business, or job, or … He changed the lives he touched.”
Michelle remembers everything she learned from her mentor and friend. “I learned how to be kind from Joe,” she says. “I learned how to identify the needs of others, and how to give of myself. Joe created those types of friendships. You show up when people need you. You keep your promises.”
It has been two years since Dr. Ha’s death, but even after life, he keeps giving to the causes he cared about most — in amazing and surprising ways.
When Dr. Ha died, he left in his will several of his wishes — one being that his money be used to help students, especially children abroad. Unsure of how to make her father’s wishes a reality, Karen reached out to Holt with a $200,000 gift. That gift, which more than doubled through match-gifts at Holt’s four annual gala dinner and auction events, will continue to grow. The money will directly impact the lives of orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children in China, Korea and Southeast Asia. It will help keep children in school. It will help vulnerable children remain with their birth families. And it will help Holt find loving adoptive families for orphaned and abandoned children who truly need them. These children will never know Dr. Ha, but their lives will be a testament to his generosity and compassion.
“It’s so interesting that a man of such small stature could be so much bigger than he appeared,” John says. “Bigger in humor and bigger in intelligence.”
Billie Loewen | Staff Writer