On cold days in December, especially bone-chilling cold ones like this year, I cannot help but think of my English teacher who I first met walking up the hill on a snowy morning in my first year at college. It was 36 years ago, but something about him has left deep imprints on me for the rest of my life.
There was nothing unusual about him at the first encounter beside being the only American in the vast windy campus. “He must be a military man from the American base nearby,” I thought. He was as tall as 6 feet and in his late 50s. Like a soldier, his posture was strong and upright.
“Annyung Haseyo?” the man shouted.
Shocked totally and unprepared, I replied, “Um…he…hello!” in English. Who would expect this foreign man asking “how is it going?” in fluent Korean?
Soon I learned from senior students that everyone called him Mac Halbae (Grandfather or Senior Citizen Mac) and he had been on the campus forever.
He was a very thrifty person. He always used public transportation or walked and never used taxis. “Too expensive and too spoiling,” he used to say.
During the semesters in the following year, he never skipped classes. He taught over a few hundreds students each semester and returned their weekly papers, often 2-3 per week, with lots of red corrections and suggestions for improvement.
Although he was extremely strict academically, he was such a warm-hearted and generous man outside classes. Every time he found students experiencing financial difficulties, he donated a portion of his salary to help them. By the time he retired from the university, 340 students had received scholarship money from him. He kept only $300 for his monthly expenses and donated the rest for 20 years.
Today, his scholarship recipients work across the country and have recently built a museum and library in memory of him with their donations. The university also erected his statue on the first floor of the Humanities Hall.
Dr. Arthur J. McTaggart, aka Mac Halbae in Korean, was born in Logansport in Indiana and worked as a mechanic after high school in his hometown. After studying at Purdue and Cornell Universities, he received a Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University. In 1953, he made his first ties with Korea while working at the US Embassy in Seoul as a finance officer for the US Department of State and served as the Director of the United States Information Service (USIS) Center in Daegu until 1963. After retiring from his government position in 1976, he immediately became a professor at Yeungnam University’s Department of English Language and Literature.
Known as an educator who loved Korea more than Koreans, he used whatever personal time he had to give free English lessons for the locals. Until retiring from the University in 1997, he not only set an example of a modest lifestyle but also shared a loving spirit for the local culture. He recovered a total of 482 cultural artifacts that had been exported out of Korea, including Korean celadon and porcelain from various eras and 380 earthenware pieces from the ancient Silla, Gaya, and Unified Silla periods. He permanently donated them to the National Museum of Korea in 2000.
Looking back at the first time I saw him walking up the hill of the snowy campus, I find myself feeling embarrassed about thinking of him as “a foreigner.” He did something magnificent that even the locals couldn’t do for their own country.
His impact on me is a lasting one. As he did, I try to touch everyone I meet at the personal level and share something that I have. Dr. McTaggart perhaps could have moved up the ladder but chose to stay with people he cared about. I often find myself walking up the hill to see him, many miles away.
“Annyung Haseyo?” he shouts anew each time.
“Kamsa Hamnida, Mac Halbae!” I reply without stuttering.
Thank you, Dr. McTaggart!