At age 21, K.W. Lee realized he needed to "get the heck out of" Korea.
Like many Koreans in the early 1900s, he endured an unsettling upbringing marred
by the ever-changing political landscape. Born in 1928 in Kaesong, Lee, BS ’53,
Journalism, grew up under Japanese occupation. Then came World War II, which led
to the splitting of Korea into two zones — the North occupied by the Soviet
Union and the South by the United States.
As a Korean under Japanese occupation, Lee joined the Japanese Army Air Force.
Then, the Korean War waited in the wings. Lee left for America six months before
war broke out.
That is when Lee’s eventual journey to West Virginia University became “the beginning
of an unbroken series of karma,” he says.
Now, nearly 70 years later, Lee is revered as the “godfather of Asian-American journalism.”
Not bad for someone with zero concept of journalism before entering the U.S.
Lee made history as the first Asian immigrant to be hired by a mainstream U.S. daily
Kingsport Times and News in Tennessee.
Charleston Gazette, he covered political corruption and the plight of coal
miners in southern West Virginia. At the
Sacramento Union, he investigated the wrongful conviction of Korean immigrant
Chol Soo Lee, whose death row sentence was overturned in part because of Lee’s
aggressive reporting. And, as tensions rose between blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles
around the time of the Rodney King riots, Lee launched
The Korea Times English Edition from L.A.
“I can’t help but be philosophical,” Lee said. “My life started at WVU. It’s karma.”
K.W. Lee. Photo by Alex Wilson.
First, he settled in Tennessee by enrolling into what he called “a private, reform
school for public school rejects.” He then wound up at Tennessee Tech where he
met his first English instructor, Guy Stewart, a West Virginia native who later
served as dean of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism (now the Reed College
Stewart took a liking to Lee. The Stewarts — Guy, his wife and their two kids — invited
Lee to travel to West Virginia with them.
“This was in the 1950s, so there were no turnpikes or interstates,” Lee said. “Can
you imagine me — a Korean guy — riding along in the back with two kids and
all these pots and pans? There were endless steep curves. I told him, ‘Mr. Stewart,
stop, please. I want to go back.’”
Stewart urged Lee to study journalism, a craft unbeknownst to him in Korea. So he
entered WVU where he met another mentor, journalism Dean P.I. Reed, who helped
jumpstart his reporting career.
K.W. Lee served as news editor of the
Daily Athenaeum in 1952. Photo provided.
“To me, P.I. Reed was like a biblical Moses,” Lee said. “He was a bedrock conservative
from Ohio with an old English accent. He was a typical patrician. Very stern, but
soft on the inside. Eventually, I learned the magic of English words and reading.”
At the time, the journalism school was tucked away in Woodburn Hall. Lee recalled
spending several nights studying and sleeping on the third floor.
It was during this time at WVU that Lee got the privilege to interview the sitting
president of the United States, Harry S. Truman. One of Lee’s classmates knew U.S.
Sen. Harley Kilgore, D-W.Va., who helped arrange the interview.
“My friend drove me to Washington, D.C.,” Lee said. “I was a bumbling, struggling
foreign student. I didn’t fully realize at the time that I was actually going to
interview the president.”
After WVU, Lee continued his path to journalistic prominence. He estimated writing
hundreds of articles about coal, civil rights, election fraud, corruption and poverty
in southern West Virginia, though not everyone gave him a warm welcome. He
remembered how Mingo County officials called the
Charleston Gazette newsroom to tell his bosses, “Don’t send that Chinaman
back down here.”
“My last battles were writing about Mingo County,” he said. “That’s where I
left my heart. We spent five years fighting against that machine — the Mingo County
machine — the most corrupt machine east of Chicago.
“I got lost there all the time. I was the disoriented Oriental down there. But if
you got stuck in the part of the country down in a hollow, someone would help you
out and drive you to your destination.”
Nothing thwarted Lee’s trajectory to the truth.
Assigned to the race beat in the 1960s, Lee was ordered by
Charleston Gazette Publisher Ned Chilton to “open up the Jim Crow places.”
Lee followed through on this assignment without hesitation.
One tavern in Cedar Grove, W.Va., still had a “whites only” sign in its front
window. Lee went to the tavern and the owner pulled a gun on him. Lee later returned
with a black colleague who spoke with the owner. Lee said the owner this time whipped
out a razor blade — and went over to scrape “whites only” off the sign.
Perhaps Lee is most famously known as the crusading journalist who helped uncover
the wrongful conviction of a Korean immigrant on death row. In Sacramento, he penned
120 articles over a five-year period on Chol Soo Lee, who was implicated in
a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder. The articles led to a retrial and
he was released from San Quentin in 1983.
K.W. Lee displays a newspaper featuring Chol Soo Lee outside of a movie theater
playing "True Believer," a 1989 drama starring James Wood and Robert Downey Jr.
that was loosely based on Lee's investigative articles. Photo provided.
In the 1990s, Lee would play a role in covering the civil unrest engulfing Los Angeles.
When most Americans reflect on that time, they view it as a black vs. white struggle
that sprouted from an act of police brutality caught on tape.
But for Lee and other Korean immigrants in the L.A.-area, the riots that happened
25 years ago transcended that.
Korean-Americans refer to the 1992 riots as “Saigu,” meaning “four-two-nine,” signifying
the date of April 29, 1992, when the riots began. Once a jury acquitted four LAPD
officers of using excessive force against Rodney King, all hell broke loose on
the streets over the next six days. Within that time, more than 50 people died
and more than 2,000 were injured. More than 3,600 fires were set and more than
1,000 buildings were destroyed, accounting for approximately $1 billion in property
At the center of it all was the Korean-American community where many stores were
targeted and vandalized.
At the time, Lee ran the only English-language newspaper for Koreans in the city.
He believed that most media outlets in the area exploited the riots and further
fanned the flames.
“To me, that’s the nation’s first media-fanned bogus race war,” Lee said. “Los Angeles
is the most cutthroat media market, and I felt that they pitted the blacks against
Lee had worked as a consultant for an NBC affiliate in California where he got a
glimpse of the inner workings of television news.
“May sweeps was the life and death of every TV station,” he said. “America’s greatest
upheaval started April 29. Any racial incident is tailor-made for May sweeps.”
Today Lee, 89, remains in Sacramento. His wife Peggy, whom he met in Charleston, passed away six years ago.
He has survived stomach and liver cancer. And though journalism has changed over
the years — he called his primary weapon the typewriter — Lee is still as fiery
and unfiltered as ever.
This cartoon, drawn by Paul Duginski, served as a farewell to Lee when he left the Sacramento Union in 1979.
He can be that way, with all that good karma that’s followed him from West Virginia.
Or maybe it’s just in the way he’s approached his life — and reporting.
“I never listen to rhetoric,” he said. “I judge people by what they do. The left-wingers
and the right-wingers in American journalism … it’s all bull, and they’re like
hawks. There’s a bird’s-eye view and a worm’s-eye view. I represent the worm’s-eye