Kindness not forgotten


POSTED: Sunday, April 26, 2009

When Eunice Naewon Lee arrived in Honolulu on July 11, 1959, the 3-year-old Korean orphan with the bright red shoes didn't want to let go of the gracious flight attendant who had befriended her.

Yesterday, she again clutched Ruth Wakai, this time in a heartfelt hug that dissolved into tears as they reunited after 50 years.

“;As orphans, we're looking for love and affection,”; said Eunice Lee Wakatsuki, as she is now known. “;And when someone shows that to you, you gravitate toward them. I just could never forget her, she was so beautiful and warm and loving.”;

Lee was one of the first orphans to come to Hawaii after the Korean War, and her arrival was splashed across the front page of the Star-Bulletin. Although the photographer showed up on time, her new parents were late because of a scheduling mix-up.

“;She was a little apprehensive at the airport,”; recalled her adoptive father, the Rev. T. Samuel Lee, now 93. “;She held her (Wakai's) hand and wouldn't let go.”; So they ended up all going to the Pan Am stewardess' apartment for a while until Eunice warmed up to the situation and went home with her new parents.

“;She brought me into my new life,”; Wakatsuki explained. “;She was like my first mom.”;

A soft-spoken woman who loved little kids, Wakai was assigned to handle unaccompanied children. Now 82, she doesn't have a clear recollection of this particular little girl. But she does remember bonding with her young charges.

“;I wanted to take them home with me,”; Wakai said. “;It was hard to part with them. I told them, whenever you have a chance to get on a plane, you ask for me.”;

Little Eunice took her up on that. For a year or two, whenever her family was at the airport, she'd try to find the stewardess, and a couple of times they'd luck out. But they soon lost touch.

Fast forward to 2009. Since her mother died a year ago, Eunice and her father have been reminiscing, going through old family albums and memorabilia. Recently they came across the tear sheet from the Star-Bulletin and photos of Eunice at the airport with Wakai.

Then just by happenstance, Eunice Wakatsuki and her husband, Mark, were paired with a couple of strangers at the golf course. They got to chatting and discovered that one of them had worked for Pan Am and knew Wakai. He suggested getting in touch with her by contacting Wakai's son, state Rep. Glenn Wakai.

“;I wanted to thank her for being part of my blessed life,”; said Wakatsuki, senior program analyst for HMSA.

An e-mail led to a lunch invitation, and yesterday the Wakatsukis and Eunice's father welcomed Ruth and Calvin Wakai and their son Glenn to lunch at Kincaid's Fish Chop and Steak House.

When she first arrived in Hawaii, Eunice would only eat kim chee, rice and bean-sprout soup—foods she knew from the orphanage. She still has a soft spot for kim chee, but she allowed yesterday, “;I've since learned how to eat meat.”;