Kyu In Lee was a young woman in her 20s, her family said, when she founded an orphanage near Mok Po in South Korea, the Dongmin Children’s Home. She took in children who lost their families during the war or who were born out of wedlock, the children of soldiers.
“My mother ended up with a lot of babies at her door,” said her daughter Sabre Kirkpatrick of San Diego.
Lost teens, too, called the orphanage home and helped run the operation, which received support from the Christian humanitarian group World Vision. The orphanage was an early sign of their mother’s unflagging generous spirit, her family said, and of how she would break barriers during her life.
“She was all about sharing God’s love, to the very last day,” Kirkpatrick said.
Lee died peacefully in her sleep Nov. 1 at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital following extensive treatment for an infection. She was 93.
Lee was born in 1927 on a farm in South Korea. She loved being outdoors, her daughters said, exploring the woods. She was close to her father, a military officer who fought in the 20-year campaign against Japan’s occupation of the country. In the 1960s, she left an unhappy marriage and emigrated to the United States with her three daughters.
“She wanted a better life for all of us,” Kirkpatrick said.
Landing in New York City, Lee found community in a small Presbyterian Korean church. She shopped in Chinatown to find the ingredients for the dishes she loved to cook, particularly Korean short ribs.
Lee supported the family by cooking and doing other jobs in Chinese restaurants. She even ran her own Korean restaurant for a short while. Everyone knew her as “Kay.”
“Anytime anyone arrived at her doorstep they came knowing they would be fed,” Kirkpatrick said. “There was something on the stove at all times.”
In the mid-1970s, Lee moved to California to be near her daughters. She did acupressure work at a Jack LaLanne spa. She also became a born-again Christian, they said, and she was always very rooted in her Christian faith.
Lee moved to Minnesota after two of her daughters did. “We had no history of Minnesota other than the Minnesota Vikings,” her youngest daughter, MaryAnn Zelenak, said.
Lee first lived in Burnsville, then Apple Valley, and was always a faithful member of the Korean Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Park. In her final years, Lee lived at the Grace Place in Minneapolis, an assisted living facility for Korean elders run by the Korean Service Center.
Her daughters recalled their mother’s friendship with the pharmacy staff at Cub Foods in Apple Valley.
“They used to call her the Candy Grandma, because anywhere she went she always had candy in her pocket,” Kirkpatrick said.
It was a habit from the orphanage, they said. She liked to say: “Wherever you go, leave a little sweetness behind.”
She took many trips to South Korea, they said, to provide supplies to people with leprosy, among other things. One trip was particularly meaningful for her: a reunion at the orphanage in the 1980s with adults she raised as children.
“They were waiting for her at the airport with a sign: Welcome Home Mother,” Kirkpatrick said. “She told me they all huddled together and cried and wept for a very long time.”
In addition to daughters Kirkpatrick and Zelenak, Lee is survived by daughter Jennifer Jahangiri of San Diego, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Services have been held. Lee’s family will carry her ashes back to South Korea.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683