Myung Soon Chung (Woo) of Boca Grande, Florida, and previously of Barrington Hills, Illinois, passed away peacefully, surrounded by family, on March 28, 2021. Born in Pyongyang, Korea in 1931, to Kyung Chun Woo and Yim Jinsil Woo,
Myung Soon was the eldest of eight children. Her family was in the garment business and owned two mills, affording Myung Soon with piano lessons and the family with an unsanctioned radio. In 1950, her family heard over their radio that U.N. troops, facing attacks by China, were evacuating southward. Her parents decided that her father should escape with the oldest children, who were of conscription age, to the south of Pyongyang. What started as a planned, two-week separation from her family ended up spanning over 40 years. After a harrowing journey, her father, two brothers and she arrived at a church in South Korea where they lived for the next two years with hundreds of other refugees. Gifted with a beautiful contralto voice, Myung Soon sang every Sunday at the U.S. Army church. After the war, she attended college at Ewha Women’s University and graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in voice.
In 1956, Myung Soon had her heart set on studying voice in America. She won a full scholarship to pursue her masters degree at Lewis and Clark College, but had no way of getting to America. She continued to sing every Sunday at the U.S. Army church as a soloist with the choir, hoping to earn enough money for her trip. After practice one afternoon, she was asked to give a recital. At the end of the concert she was presented with two gifts: A one-way ticket to America and a suitcase! Sponsored by the Thomases, an American family in Portland, Oregon, Myung Soon quickly became a renowned soloist in the Portland area. She sang with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra and the San Diego Opera Company. Through her voice teacher and mentor, Josephine Spaulding, she received a coveted invitation to study for the summer at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara where she met Mme. Lotte Lehmann who offered her a full scholarship to study at The Juilliard School. Instead, Myung Soon married Byong Uk Chung, a handsome medical student at the University of Oregon, whom she had met at Lewis and Clark College. She received her Masters of Music in voice from Lewis and Clark and they started a family.
In 1961, they moved to the midwest. Byong Uk was accepted into the neurosurgery residency program at Northwestern University and Myung Soon continued her music studies with Esther LaBarge Ganz. While caring for their now four children and working as a seamstress, Myung Soon managed to sing in church every Sunday and to perform as an oratorio soloist throughout the Chicago area.
After having survived Korea’s occupations by Japan, Russia and China, Myung Soon and Byong Uk became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1968. Overjoyed, she sang at the ceremony and was thrilled to vote for the first time. “I can say anything in America. I can speak my mind. Freedom. That is what I like about America.”
In 1990, Myung Soon happened across a news article in the Toronto Star about reuniting families which had been torn apart by the Korean War. She wrote to the paper and discovered that one of her brothers and her mother were living in North Korea. Through an American church organization, Myung Soon joined a group of Korean ex-pats living in America who were also searching for their North Korean families. The group traveled from America to Canada to China to North Korea. Once there she was able to find her mother and all her siblings, whom she had not seen in 40 years, including the brother she had never met (her mother was pregnant at the time of the separation). Their reunion was miraculous and joyful. Over the next 15 years she was able to go back to see them five times. Each time she brought cassette recordings from her father and brothers living in South Korea to her mother, brothers and sister and then back again so they could “talk” to each other.
She was a devoted mother and wife. Her cooking was legendary; her fried chicken and gravy was on par with her bulgogi and kimchi. Myung Soon was the homeroom mother for all four children, laundress, housekeeper and chauffeur for all their after school sports and activities. When she wasn’t performing with the Apollo Chorus and Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a soloist, she was in the audience and stands cheering on her children.
Myung Soon, a natural athlete, excelled at tennis; playing well into her eighties, all the while perfecting her “tricky shot.” Full of adventure, she learned to ski and play golf in her sixties. Needlework and sudoku occupied her down time. Byong Uk and Myung Soon were avid world travelers, but their favorite place to go was wherever their grandchildren were.
Myung Soon was preceded in death by her parents, her beloved husband, Byong Uk Chung, her brother, Moon Yo Woo and daughter-in-law, Kristen Chung. She will be greatly missed by her children: Drs. Mimi Chung and Paul Kwo, Young Chung, Julia and Fred (Pierce), Joe and Lucy Chung; and her fifteen grandchildren: Sean, Alec, Peter, Sabrina, Ross, Libbie, Ian, Cameron, Miles, Gabriella, Nathan, Lily, Evangeline, Stefania and Cecily. A celebration of her life will be arranged and announced at a later date.