Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Yearn Hong Choi

My first Christmas in Bloomington, Indiana in 1968 was most unforgettable. Professor William J. Siffin, who created the Scholars of Comparative Administration Group (CAG) in the 1960s, invited me to his home on Christmas Eve. A Harvard educated professor, Siffin had created the new academic field of comparative public administration and public policy, which was the reason I had come to Indiana University. I felt privileged to be part of the Siffin family’s Christmas gathering and I so appreciated the generous hospitality shown by his wife and daughter. That warm, cozy evening spent around a quietly crackling log in the fireplace has become a fond memory ever since.

After a delicious dinner, complete with pumpkin pie for dessert, Professor Siffin drove me back to my boarding house. As I got out of his car, he said to me, “Mr. Choi, Merry Christmas to you! Life is zestful. You should enjoy and appreciate your precious life!” Each word became a shining star in the dark blue night sky. Since that first Christmas in the United States, I have embraced a new conception of Christmas and a new life. How fortunate I was!

I was a poor foreign student who came to the United States with only a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket. Korea was a poor nation in the 1960s, then became a developing nation in the 1970s, and an industrialized nation in the 1980s. Siffin contributed to the developmental course of poor nations that wished to become modern industrialized nations. When a nation had a desire to change and its leadership demonstrated a willingness to enact the necessary changes to transform a traditional society into a modern nation, he provided a model of how to do so. He liked the term “model-building” in our seminars and he believed that the university should, in alliance with governmental agencies, research and provide proper models of developmental progress to Third World nations.

In my first semester, I worked in a local pizza kitchen. Professor Siffin knew about my poverty-stricken life and he recognized that my English was another obstacle, but he saw that my academic ambitions were high. During that fall semester, all of his students had to produce a book review every week. Many students complained that such a weekly assignment was too much for them. He then reduced the 14 assignments to 10; however, I did all 14 assignments. 

I completed my doctorate work in 1972 and started teaching at the University of Wisconsin. I worked for the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense as an assistant for environmental quality, and retired after a long teaching career at the University of Seoul in 2006. I wrote my memoir, Song of Myself: A Korean-American Life, in 2010, in which I inserted one chapter, My First Christmas, and sent that chapter to the Indianapolis Star. The editor condensed it to 750 words and published it in its Op Ed page on Christmas morning. Some of Siffin’s former students in Indiana contacted me to express their thanks after reading that article. Since then, I have sent a small donation to Indiana University Foundation every Christmas. I discovered that in order to create an endowed scholarship fund in honor of Professor William Siffin, a donation of $25,000 was required.

I was finally able to make that donation this year and I tried to find his daughter, Louise Siffin, who once worked for the American Political Science Association, as well as for Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador to the United Nations. I had met Louise in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and talked about my teacher, her father, with great affection. I wanted to reconnect after all these years and share the good news about my honoring of her father at Indiana University; however, I learned that she had passed away years ago, and I was sadly disappointed. I have since come to learn that Siffin’s two sons are living somewhere. One is in Indiana. The first Bill Siffin Scholarship recipients will be announced in 2021 and I hope they can come to attend the Indiana University ceremony.

While I regret not being able to share the continuation of Professor Siffin’s legacy with his daughter, I am so grateful to have met Professor Siffin those many years ago and to have been able to learn and incorporate new traditions into my own life. Several years after completing graduate school, I married, and my wife and I named my first son William J. Choi, in the hopes that our son would be a man of great compassion and humanity like my old professor. Then, I dedicated my first humble book, Introduction to Public Administration: Essays and Research Notes, to William J. Siffin.

I now like to speak to the sparkling stars in the dark blue sky of a Christmas night. “Sparkling” is a more accurate word than “brilliant” when I think of my professor. This is the word my fellow students and I would choose to describe him because he was distinguished by his effervescent personality, in addition to his great scholarship. I hope that the Bill Siffin scholarship will last many long years at Indiana University even after I leave this world. I would love for Professor Siffin’s history of pursuing academic excellence to inform and enhance the academic lives of future generations of scholars. I wish the students of my alma mater and future recipients of the Bill Siffin scholarship a Merry Christmas and I must remind them that life is zestful! May they enjoy and appreciate their precious lives!

Dr. Choi is a poet and writer, retired political scientist after his long teaching career in the US and South Korea. He is a resident of Northern Virginia with his wife.

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