International staff, student recall unconditional welcome to campus

Peter Ku ’68 describes his life as a series of miracles that brought him to the United States from Taiwan and eventually to East Carolina College where he found the love of his life.

Ku had not heard of East Carolina or Greenville when he received a phone call from Wendell Smiley offering a job opportunity at Joyner Library. He had just completed his master’s in library science at the University of Minnesota.

“I was shocked when he called,” Ku said. “I told him, ‘You don’t even know me. Where is East Carolina?’”

Sophia and Peter Ku were married near campus at Immanuel Baptist Church in 1968.

Sophia and Peter Ku were married near campus at Immanuel Baptist Church in 1968.

None of Ku’s questions or doubts dissuaded Smiley’s confidence or insistence. The library director encouraged Ku to make his plans and come to Greenville to work. Ku had 10 days to get his affairs in order and move to North Carolina. People suggested he shouldn’t go. He gambled and agreed to come to ECU for a year.

“I told Wendell I didn’t have anywhere to live, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about any of that. You’re going to stay with our family,’” Ku recalled. “So, I had a new job and stayed at the director’s house.”

Smiley met Ku at the airport in Raleigh to bring him to campus. It was the first of many moments of kindness Ku experienced amid the miracle of coming to ECU.

“He was one of those people you like immediately,” Ku said of Smiley. “He was so kind. He cooked meals on the weekends and took me to church with him every Sunday.”

Bit of wonder

Ku was cared for, accepted and included by Smiley’s family, Joyner Library’s staff and faculty members. Fifty years later, Ku speaks of his experience with amazement and recalls the moments of his time at ECU with gratitude and a bit of wonder.

He and his wife, Sophia ’69, have chosen to honor the kindness shown to them by establishing an endowment to support the institutional priorities at ECU. The Peter and Sophia Ku Endowment specifically honors Smiley, James and Sara Batten, Sallie Mann, Elizabeth Walker and Anne Briley.

“We think about Greenville and East Carolina often,” Ku said. “It’s the people who are the heartwarming part of this story. Now I think, my goodness what if we hadn’t gone to a nice community like this.

“These are ordinary people who looked after us,” he added. “We said, ‘My God, why are these people so good to us?’ They took us as their family. It’s like we were their kids.”

The Kus shared their ECU story through a video interview from their Seattle home. Sophia has aphasia requiring Peter to do the talking for both. He hovered excitedly between talking and looking to Sophia for cues to be sure he was not leaving out important pieces.

Their relationship is another of the miracles with direct ties to ECU.

Peter Ku worked as a library cataloger. Staff members, including Sara Batten, Walker, Mann and Briley, taught Ku how to be a good librarian. He was invited for meals, outings and family gatherings at river cottages. They became his friends. They were “the action committee” when it came to Ku’s life in Greenville.

Ku also enrolled in graduate school in education administration. James Batten was the department chair and husband to Sara, who worked with Ku at the library.

In 1967, Sophia Chung graduated from the National Taiwan University and received a scholarship to attend ECU’s new MBA program in the then School of Business.

She sent a letter asking for more details about ECU and Greenville. Ku was asked to correspond with her. The two exchanged letters. Ku described the campus and town and encouraged Chung to attend.

Ku remembered how brave he thought Chung was. She said she would take a taxi when he suggested picking her up at the airport. Ku explained the many reasons that would not work and that it was best for him to meet her at the airport.

Chung’s welcome to ECU was filled with kindness, just as Ku’s had been the year prior. The action committee fell in love with her.

“Everyone was so kind to her,” Ku said. “Sally Mann had Sophia stay in her home. She was more welcomed than me.”

Chung was the only woman and only international student in the MBA program. She received her MBA in 1969. She was also the only woman in the room when she took and passed the CPA exam on her first attempt.

The Smiley way

It may have been inevitable, or perhaps a plan put in motion by the action committee, Ku and Chung became a couple and fell in love. The pair decided to marry in March 1968.

Ku said they had no idea what was involved in an American wedding ceremony. The action committee showed up and gave them a wedding.

Then ECU librarian Elizabeth Walker, Joyner Library director Wendall Smiley and Elva Smiley celebrate the marriage of Sophia and Peter Ku.

Smiley secured the church. Mann took Sophia to a seamstress and had a dress made. Walker gave them a wedding shower. Their friends also arranged the wedding and food at the reception. The couple wed at Immanual Baptist Church with the Rev. Irby Jackson officiating.

“I practically paid for nothing and married a pretty girl,” Ku said.

Ku said his friends continued to care for his family. Living on his library salary was difficult for the couple. When their daughter was born, the Kus had no means of furnishing a nursery or much of their home. Mann’s husband, TJ, found the couple furniture for their home.

“We had a very rough time. All of my friends came in to support us,” he said. “That’s such kindness you don’t expect. It put us in tears.”

Family and friends of the Smileys know the kindness experienced by the Kus all began with Wendell and Elva Smiley.

“My parents routinely sheltered students and faculty as they arrived at ECC,” said Steve Smiley ’72.

Smiley was in high school and living at the family’s home when Ku arrived. He remembers Ku, a veteran of the Taiwanese Army, as an exotic and heroic figure. The two stood together and watched as Smiley’s brother Scott ’71, drove off to begin his Air Force service.

“It was Peter’s good fortune that he landed amongst a fluffy warm nest of people, the Smileys,” explained family friend Candace Pearce ’96. “They were a great big, smart collection of people, and they knew everyone at East Carolina.”

Pearce, who later married Steve Smiley, remembers attending the Ku’s wedding. Because it involved the Smileys, there was no culture shock. Peter and Sophia were part of everyday life.

“It is now and always has been the Smiley way,” Pearce said.

Out of the nest

In 1969, in another miraculous turn, Ku was recruited to Beaufort County Technical Institute to be the director of library services. The Kus left ECU and moved to Washington, North Carolina. Sophia worked as an accountant at National Spinning.

They continued to be connected with their ECU friends. When Ku decided to apply to graduate school at Duke, Batten wrote his letter of recommendation. He was accepted and earned his doctorate in community college administration.

The Kus moved to Charlotte when Peter was hired at Stanley Technical Institute. They both became U.S. citizens by the mid 70s.

As Peter’s career advanced, the family moved to Columbia, Maryland, where they lived for 16 years. He was director of the library at Howard Community College before being promoted as dean. Sophia became a federal employee, working as an auditor.

In 1990, Ku was hired as president of North Seattle Community College. He also served two years as president of South Seattle Community College before becoming chancellor of the multi-campus district in 1998. He retired in 2003.

“My whole life is a lot of miracles,” Ku said. “I am living the dream because of all the warmth and welcome I received.”

ECU is in the public phase of the Pursue Gold campaign to raise half a billion dollars. This ambitious effort will create new paths to success for Pirates on campus, across the country and around the world. Donor gifts during the campaign will keep us constantly leading and ready to advance what’s possible. Learn more at pursuegold.ecu.edu.