She came to the United States as a penniless teenager, speaking no English. Her family was shattered, forced to move into a refugee camp when China invaded their native Korea. Soon after, her mother and grandmother died, and she took responsibility for the care of her six brothers.
Mary Kim would hurdle these obstacles with grace, hard work and a quiet intelligence, launching a career that saw her rise to prominence in academia and business.
Kim, 80, died last month in Southern California, where she and her husband had retired. She spent more than a quarter-century at the University of Minnesota, where her résumé included positions as director of statistical services, director of budget planning and data services, and assistant vice president for planning and budgeting. From there, she went on to serve as chief financial officer for the Minnesota Department of Revenue and later became an international consultant for the RAND Corp., a global think tank.
Yet despite her success in the wider world, her personal qualities may have been even more impressive.
Friends and relations recall a wise, generous woman, someone who sought always to follow her sense of what was right.
“Always very thoughtful, kind, patient,” said her stepdaughter, Dr. Kirstin Erickson Wilson of Orono. “She was very quiet. She’d listen. She’s one of the few people who just absolutely would listen, and pick out the good in people.”
Born in Seoul, Korea, Kim was uprooted by the Korean War at age 12. Kim’s mother, before her death, had arranged a marriage for her. Kim refused, saying she wanted to go to school. Through an international pen pal, she was admitted to Guilford College in North Carolina.
She worked her way through school washing dishes, waiting tables and sewing dresses for faculty wives. Later, she earned a master’s in statistics and mathematics at the University of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, she scrimped and saved to bring all six of her brothers to the United States.
She met Dr. Jeffrey Erickson in the early 1990s, after both had been divorced.
“I certainly married up,” Erickson said, remembering Kim’s kindness and generosity. Kim never bought new clothing; she always shopped at thrift stores. Once, she was given a custom-sewn silk gown for the wedding of a friend’s son in Vietnam. When asked about it later, she said she had given it away, “so someone else could use it.”
Erickson marveled at Kim’s strength and resilience.
“I sometimes turn it around and think, ‘If I were going to Korea under those circumstances, how would I do?’ ” he said. “Well, I think I would fail miserably.”
About 10 years ago, Kim was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, transthyretin amyloidosis, which causes protein deposits that affect nerves and organs. For years, she patiently endured the ravages of the disease, which eventually left her unable to eat.
Finally, she decided to make use of a California law that allows patients to choose dying with a physician’s aid. At the University of Southern California, she took part in medical trials and interviews to educate the medical community.
She died peacefully, surrounded by family and listening to a 600-year-old Korean folk song.
Said her stepdaughter: “Her last words were, ‘Thanks for everything.’ ”
In addition to her husband and stepdaughter, survivors include her son, Peter Bilek; her daughter, Anne Bilek; stepchildren Dr. Nissa Erickson and Per Erickson; and eight grandchildren. Services have been held.
John Reinan • 612-673-7402