Pallbearers carried the coffin of Lee Jong-wook, director-general of the World Health Organization, Wednesday prior to the funeral at the Notre Dame Basilica in Geneva.
Honored UH alumnus left mark on global health
Dr. Lee Jong-wook
GENEVA » The late head of the World Health Organization drove himself so hard in fighting the world's worst diseases that he thought he had given too little time to making friends, a key aide said Wednesday.
But hundreds of admirers who packed one of Geneva's largest churches for his funeral service showed how much they felt they had lost when Dr. Lee Jong-wook died earlier this week.
Lee, who received a distinguished alumni award from the University of Hawaii in 2005 and graduated from the university with a master's degree in public health in 1981, died Monday in Geneva.
"My heart is heavy with sadness over Dr. Lee's unexpected death," said University of Hawaii Chancellor Denise Konan in Honolulu. "He was an outstanding leader in international health and development, and we are proud to count him among our distinguished alumni. He will be greatly missed."
Lee, 61, died after suffering a blood clot on the brain. He had dedicated his life to fighting diseases ranging from leprosy and polio to tuberculosis, bird flu and HIV/AIDS.
"He thought of himself as a man with just a few friends," said Dr. Bill Kean, who collaborated with Lee for two decades before becoming director of his office. "But I think he would have been quite amazed to know how many people, all over the world, counted themselves as his friends."
His death brought notes of condolence from President Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Tributes from around the world praised Lee -- who is survived by his wife and son -- for his cheerful effectiveness in spurring the world to build its defenses against a potentially deadly flu pandemic.
Kean said Lee "would have been astonished to register the level of feeling" among hundreds who crammed into the U.N. health agency's executive boardroom on Monday for memorial music.
During Wednesday's Catholic ceremony at Geneva's Notre Dame Basilica, Lee also was posthumously praised by Pope Benedict XVI in a statement read out by Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, who heads the Vatican's diplomatic mission to the U.N. offices in Geneva.
Attendance well exceeded the church's 700-seat capacity, as diplomats, national health ministers and other officials broke from a week-long meeting on diseases and other health threats to attend the funeral of Lee, a 23-year veteran of the agency from South Korea.
Some in the crowd were visibly shaken, even crying when Lee's son, Tadahiro, praised his father as a man who gave "100 percent" to both his family and the health interests of millions of people around the world. Lee also was eulogized by South Korean Health Minister Rhyu Si-min.
For three days, speaker after speaker at the World Health Assembly, the annual meeting of the 192-nation WHO which began Monday, praised Lee as a tireless public servant who dedicated his life to improving health conditions for the world's most vulnerable people.
Lee took over as director-general of WHO in 2003 as the agency was winding up its battle against the SARS outbreak in Asia. Before that he won praise for his low-key but efficient management style as head of the agency's tuberculosis program. Lee was named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2004.
Kean explained how his boss's final words concerned the global body's fight against malaria -- a disease spread by mosquitoes which kills more than 1 million people in poor countries each year even though it is both preventable and treatable.
"He was never off duty," Kean said. "His agile mind was constantly turning over situations, plans and ideas. He never stopped thinking."
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown and UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman also attended the service.