[Viewpoint]Grandpa ‘Already Burned’The late principal of the Nature School in Dumil-ri, Gapyeong county, Gyeonggi province, Chae Gyu-cheol, was nicknamed “Grandfather E.T.” But in his case, E.T. had nothing to do with the movie of the same name directed by Steven Spielberg. E.T. is also the acronym for a Korean phrase meaning “already burned.” He got the nickname after suffering third degree burns all over his body in a car accident.
Forty years ago, Mr. Chae returned from Denmark after finishing his studies there and established the Blue Cross Medical Insurance Association, the first private medical insurance society in Korea, together with Dr. Chang Ki-ryeo, the director of the Busan Evangelical Hospital. Thanks to the association, many underprivileged people who could not afford medical care could get access to general hospitals. Then just 31 years old, Mr. Chae led a very busy life doing volunteer work along with his insurance society endeavor.
Then one day everything changed. An accident plunged his car down a hillside and Mr. Chae was doused with paint and highly flammable turpentine that he was carrying to use for painting an orphanage. The vehicle exploded and burst into flames and in an instant the young man was on fire.
Mr. Chae suffered from severe burns over most of his body and it was something of a miracle that his life was saved. In the hospital, he had passed through one crisis after another as he struggled to survive. He underwent more than 30 plastic surgeries, but finally his life was saved despite intense scarring, the loss of the external portion of his ears and sight in one eye. His hands contracted like hooks and his appearance was such that he began losing the will to live.
In this already miserable situation, his wife, who had taken care of him with sincerity and devotion, passed away. He then tried to commit suicide several times but survived against his will and existed in an abyss of despair. Against these horrible odds, however, he rose up again, finally shedding the nightmare of despair.
Recalling those miserable days, he said much later, “We need two F’s in our life. One is ‘forget’ and the other is ‘forgive.’ If I didn’t forget the terrible pain I had to suffer from the accident, I might not have been able to survive. Only when we forget the past and empty our minds, can we fill the place with something new. For the wrongs of the past, it is no use to put the blame on someone else. Only when I forgive others, can I be forgiven, too.”
Against the odds, he resumed his activities with the Blue Cross Medical Insurance Association and also established the Korean Organ and Tissues Donor Program in 1975. In 1986, he founded the Dumilri Nature School, an alternative school devoted to exposing children to the wonders of the natural world. He poured all his energy into the project, which gave children who are confined to concrete walls and driven by constant competition a chance to play in the soil and count the stars in the sky. He was the principal of that school until he passed away last December at the age of 69.
During his lifetime, he often toured the country, although travel was difficult due to his “already burned” body. He sought out every corner of Korea to give lectures and spread his inspiring message. But it was not the words he used that moved his audiences as much as the fact that he was standing in front of them at all. This man who had overcome his burns was a living reminder of human possibility. With the strong passion that emanated from his scarred body, he affirmed the power of the human spirit to conquer the deepest gulf of desperation.
We feel the power of affirmation at this time when the frozen land thaws and the trees begin to bud. A spring-like feeling also arises in people who think positively, in the same way that the southern winds warm the land.
To those who have only complaints and dissatisfaction, it can never be springtime, even if the season for budding and blooming arrives. Think negatively and the severe winter will linger long after the weather changes. But for those who affirm life ― like Chae Gyu-cheol ― spring is always close at hand.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong