Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: This surprising Tacoma story makes me proud

The last thing I expected amid the hustle and glam of a business trip to New York City was to hear a sweet story from long ago about my adopted hometown. But that’s exactly what happened.

While I was recruiting for our company at the Asian American Journalists Association conference last month, Eric Wee walked up to our McClatchy booth and introduced himself. Wee runs a website that connects minority journalists to media companies with job openings. I introduced myself as the editor in Tacoma.

“Tacoma?” he asked. Wee took a step back as a big smile spread across his face.

Tacoma, he told me, is a very special place to his family. Tacoma is the town that embraced Wee’s young immigrant parents 60-some years ago and gave them their start in this country. At my request, he wrote down their story so I could share it with readers.

William Wee and Hedy Liu fled communist China in 1949.

“First they fled (or endured) the Japanese as they invaded China, and then they fled with literally nothing to Taiwan as the communist Chinese took power,” Eric said. “My parents met in Taiwan. My mother got a scholarship to a Catholic university in North Dakota. I think she was only 18 or 19 at the time. My father volunteered and joined the U.S. Army in Korea and went to the front lines since he could speak both Mandarin and English perfectly. He could translate intercepted communications.”

Eventually, William came to the Olympia area to attend what Eric described as a “strict Catholic college” — apparently Saint Martin’s. “I think it was tough for him to be in such a rigid environment after what he had lived through,” Eric said.

During Christmas break of 1951 or 1952, Eric said, Hedy traveled four days by train to visit William in the Olympia area. During that visit, on a Sunday trip north to Seattle in search of good Chinese food, they drove through Tacoma.

“My dad saw a college campus that looked really nice and told my mother: ‘That’s the kind of place we should be studying at,’” Eric said.

They pulled the car over, went in search of the college president’s office and found it. They knocked on the door, which was opened — incredibly on a Sunday over Christmas break – by the president himself, Dr. R. Franklin Thompson. He invited them in.

“They explained their story, and on the spot, he offered them two scholarships to attend the College of Puget Sound,” Eric said.

Thompson also arranged part-time jobs for the young couple.

“My father was originally supposed to live and work with a family named the Wilhelmis,” Eric said. “They owned a well-known stationery store in downtown Tacoma and were a fixture in the community.” (Tacoma Public Library archives list J.F. Wilhelmi as vice president of The Stationers.) The Wilhelmis wanted a young man who could help care for an elderly parent.

“Instead, my father asked them if they would consider having my mother live and work with them,” Eric said. “They at first reluctantly agreed. Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Jim (as my parents and we all called them) became my mother’s American parents. They taught her about American life. She was supposed to take care of them. They ended up taking care of her.

“I believe when my parents got married a few years later, they had the reception at Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Jim’s house.”

William and Hedy also worked for a short time for Weyerhaeuser, Eric said. They left for California in 1955 and raised their family there.

“Later, when my parents did well financially, they became relatively big donors to UPS whenever Dr. Thompson made a request,” Eric said.

Eric’s website details his own accomplishments. He earned degrees from UCLA and Oxford University and went on to a distinguished journalism career. He was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland and then for The Washington Post from 1993 to 2002. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 1999. He now is the Georgetown University Journalism Fellow.

Eric visited Aunt Elizabeth in Tacoma in 1993, he said, a few years before she died. Uncle Jim is gone, too.

“My parents did suffer some racial problems in the Northwest in the 1950s, but I think this also shows the kindness that existed with people like the Wilhelmis,” Eric said. “I think it shows how it was a different age. It was a time when a foreign student could drive off the highway and knock on the door of a college and get a scholarship that same day.”

At least in Tacoma, they could.

Their story makes me proud to call this town home.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434