I met Gwang-Jo Kim when we were both students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than three decades ago. I learned a great deal from his work ethic, his extraordinary determination and focus on his studies, and from his intellect. We were brought together by our shared broken English, our shared doctoral advisor, Professor Russell Davis, the many courses we took together, and the fact that we both came from far away, were living extremely frugally out of necessity more than disposition, and did a number of poorly paid student jobs, such as painting student dorms, to pay our bills. Gwang Jo’s hopeful spirit and humor lifted me up on more than one occasion from the pressing burden of having to write many research papers in a language that was very much foreign to us then, during the short days of winter, with little money in our pockets. Our conversations as we painted those rooms or crossed paths in the library helped to keep me focused on the long term, on the better world we were going to build as a result of our efforts to advance educational opportunity. Amidst those demands and pressures we lived as graduate students, Gwang-Jo made time to be with his family by sleeping few hours.
Over the last three decades I had the pleasure of seeing Gwang-Jo pursue an extraordinarily successful career in international development, and achieve the dreams he had discussed as we painted the student rooms in the Cronkhite Graduate Center at Harvard. He became a deputy secretary of education of South Korea, a senior education official at the World Bank, and eventually Director of UNESCO’s office for Asia and the Pacific. These were remarkable accomplishments for a man who had come from the most humble beginnings, accomplishments he had earned purely as a result of talent and effort. But to Gwang Jo, GJ as his colleagues in Unesco Bangkok called him, these accomplishments were important only because they provided him a platform from which to serve others, especially children. It was a joy to watch his sophistication in engaging ministers, premiers, members of royalty, and his colleagues in the international development community, and in getting them to collaborate to produce valuable results for the education of children.
Gwang-Jo Kim represented the best of UNESCO in his commitment to the enduring mission of the organization: the advancement of human rights and the promotion of peace and sustainability through education. His capacity for innovation and his imagination to bring people together on behalf of bigger purposes were inspiring, to his staff, to me and to my students, as was his resiliency and determination to see projects through until they achieved results.
With grace, Gwang-Jo steered UNESCO towards meaningful and relevant work even as financial resources dwindled. He brought together often all ministers of education of Asia and the Pacific to examine how to create jobs for youth, how to promote entrepreneurship, how to build a culture of innovation. He was passionate about helping to rebuild education in regions in conflict, and had a firm belief in the power of schools to help societies heal from the wounds of violence. In his last years, he was focused on finding ways to work with governments so they could support public schools to more effectively promote socio-emotional development and happiness.
Gwang-Jo led one of the jewels of UNESCO with great humility. At gatherings of Ministers of Education, I saw him bring his guitar, and conclude a full day of meaningful and productive discussions, with a performance in which he sang songs in several languages. He had learned to play the guitar, and to fly kytes, while serving as Director of UNESCO in Bangkok. He explained it helped him put life in perspective and keep balance. He advised me to pick up a hobby years ago, as I visited him and his wife in their apartment in Bangkok; with the demeanor of an older brother he explained that a hobby would help me be ready for the changes life would bring as I aged. The next time I saw him, when he took a detour on a trip to the UN to come speak to my students at Harvard, I showed him a garden I had started and he seemed pleased I had followed his advice.
Gwang-Jo was generous, always a giver, never a taker. He made time for the small stuff of life like taking me and my wife shopping in an open market in Bangkok, or trading stories about parenting, even as he lived an extraordinarily productive life serving much bigger purposes. He mentored generations of professionals who work today in the field of international development. When we admitted at Harvard graduate students who had worked with him, he always took the time to call and ask that we mentored that student well. It gave me great pleasure to hear former students of mine who went to work for him speak with great admiration about Gwang Jo.
At our last conversation in person, during a visit I paid him in Thailand, he shared plans he was just sketching for life after retiring from UNESCO, to return to the village of his roots, perhaps to teach, to continue to give of himself to the children, to educate the next generation so we could have a better world. Our last exchange, three weeks ago, was over an innovation award he had helped establish to recognize programs to strengthen the capacities of teachers in Asia. He confirmed he would be retiring at the end of August, as he had planned to do some time ago. ‘I will soon update you about my retired life.’ he wrote. I was hopeful we could persuade him to come and do some teaching to our students, as I know how good he would have been to them.
Gwang-Jo made UNESCO a much better institution than he found it, during a time of severe financial constrains and complicated geo-politics. He helped advance the education of children through his service to the government of his country and as an international development leader, and he did it with distinction and effectiveness. He did more than his share to improve the world, with the same humble, generous and humorous spirit that I remember from our days as graduate students at Harvard, over three decades ago. He reached great heights in his profession while never forgetting his humble roots.
My heart goes out to his widow and his two sons, to his colleagues and friends. I know he will always be with us in our memories.
Thank you Gwang-Jo, for all you taught me and so many others, for your example, for your leadership, for your love and relentless work for Peace.