A garage sale with history attachedHorace Horton Underwood laughed out loud when the IHT-JoongAng Daily asked to cover his father’s estate sale. “It’s a garage sale, for goodness sake!” he said, obviously amused and a bit surprised by the show of interest in a bunch of used furniture, appliances and books.
But for foreigners living in Korea, a garage sale with the name “Underwood” attached to it was no ordinary sale. Arguably the most famous non-Koreans in Korea, the Underwood family has a long and influential history in this country that dates back to before Korea dropped its nickname as “the Hermit Kingdom.”
Friends, acquaintances and people seeking memorabilia flocked to the Underwood residence on the Yonsei University campus Saturday morning to sift through 50 years’ worth of household and personal items that had belonged to Horace Grant Underwood II, a man well-known to foreigners, Koreans and diplomats alike, who died on Jan. 15 at the age of 87.
The scene was reminiscent of an American midwestern flea market: lace table runners, an antique Ritz cracker tin, a Jurassic Hamilton-Beach electric mixer, retro jewelry and an extensive collection of hardback Kipling ― but with a mint-green hanbok, embroidered Korean knots, and traditional wooden wedding ducks thrown into the foray.
An equal mix of Korean and foreign faces came to call, several from Seoul Union Church, where some of the Underwoods are members. The Reverend Prince Charles Oteng-Boateng picked up a new bottle of Chanel No. 5, while his four-year-old son, Josiah, chose Yahtzee from the table of classic board games. This writer acquired an ornate, though weathered, wooden window frame from a traditional Korean house.
John Malone, a teacher at Seoul American High School, said he first became acquainted with the late Mr. Underwood at one of his last lectures at the Royal Asiatic Society. “He was composed and articulate, and exuded warmth and kindness,” said Mr. Malone. “I came to see what kind of people knew him and to buy things that had personal meaning to him.” Among the items Mr. Malone snatched up was an old army-green travel trunk with Mr. Underwood’s name hand-painted on it.
In fact, what might be more interesting about this garage sale is not what was on the racks, but what was not on them. As Mr. Horace H. Underwood, eldest of the fourth generation Underwoods, explained it, “Our family lost everything two and a half times.”
The original Underwood residence, built by Horace Grant Underwood II on 10 acres of land eventually donated to Yonsei University, was looted during World War II and bombed out during the Korean War and later rebuilt, only to be trashed by demonstrating college students in 1960. In the last incident, Mr. Underwood said, a rare Goryeo Dynasty celadon pot had its spout broken off.
Items of historical significance and heirlooms that made it through the years of turmoil have been kept in the family. Mr. Underwood is seeking to transfer a 16mm documentary film, circa 1931, of his father climbing North Korea’s Mount Baekdu and measuring the depth of the crater lake on top (their rope wasn’t long enough) to DVD.
For the public, probably the most significant of the late Mr. Underwood’s posessions were his personal and office files, documenting more than a century of history. The papers are being catalogued and archived by Jung Pak, a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Columbia University who is researching the Underwood family. The information will be accessible to Yonsei University once completed.
With the passing of Horace Grant Underwood II, the garage sale marked something of an end to an era. The first Horace Grant Underwood, backed by funding from his brother John’s Underwood Typewriter Co., arrived as a Presbyterian missionary in 1885. He founded Yonsei University and Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, and the family’s long legacy has continued to extended far into Christianity, education, and even U.S.-Korea relations during both war and peacetime on the peninsula.
The third Mr. Underwood left a wife, Dorothy, who will be returning to her native Australia. Horace Horton Underwood, his eldest son, will soon be leaving his position as the executive director of the Fulbright program in Korea to move to Florida with his wife. Their children are already back in the United States.
As is often the Korean custom, many organizations with which his father was affiliated ― Rotary, Saemoonan Presbyterian Church and the Korean-American Friendship Society among them ― have asked the eldest Mr. Underwood to take over his father’s position. But he declined.
“It would take me 15 years to develop the kind of influence my father had 15 years ago,” he said. “I recognize the world has changed. Even if I remain, I’m not my father.”
by Kirsten Jerch