From student to UN chief: Ban reunites with American host family

26 May 2010
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon  with Mrs. Patterson at UN Headquarters in New York

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had an emotional reunion yesterday with the woman who hosted him in the United States nearly five decades ago when he was a young student on his first-ever trip outside his home country of the Republic of Korea.

Libba Patterson, 93, beamed with pride as she hugged Mr. Ban, who spent 8 days at her home in Novato, a city outside of San Francisco, California, in 1962.

“You are so wise for your age,” she recalled telling a solemn 18-year-old Mr. Ban.

Even then, Mrs. Patterson told the United Nations News Centre, he knew his life’s ambitions, and she marvelled at how he has achieved his dreams.

“I felt like I was leaving my own child,” she said after their meeting in the Secretary-General’s office at UN Headquarters in New York, accompanied by her daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters.

As a teenager, Ban Ki-moon scored top points on a nation-wide English-writing exam as part of a competitive process to win a coveted chance to go to the US in a trip sponsored by the Red Cross.

He travelled from his rural hometown of Eumseong in the North Chungcheong Province of the Republic of Korea, taking an unpaved road to the capital, Seoul, where he was chosen to take part in the Red Cross’ VISTA (Visit of International Students to America) programme, which took 41 students from 25 countries to different cities throughout the US.

During yesterday’s reunion, the Secretary-General fondly recounted a visit to the California beach, remembering how Mrs. Patterson was like a mother to him, covering him with a blanket when he fell asleep in the car ride home.

The two have kept up their relationship over the past decades, with Mr. Ban phoning Mrs. Patterson from different countries throughout his career.

Her granddaughters, Bonnie and Wendy Marinaccio, marvelled at how humble the Secretary-General – who told them that he has been very “lucky” throughout his career – has remained.

“He’s so powerful but he accepts that he can never know it all,” Wendy said.

Writing about his California trip in Junior Red Cross, a Korean-language publication, Mr. Ban said, “I was so excited I felt I could grab the stars from the sky, but also concerned about how I should present myself to this new world.” He reminded himself to be “careful not to prejudge” the people he would encounter along the way.

Decades later, he has crisscrossed the globe as a diplomat and now as the head of the UN. Mrs. Patterson said she was in awe of how worldly he has become and how “he’s grown with his knowledge and in his profession.”

 

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