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Evans: Hero of the Marginalized, Friend of Koreans

Posted March. 15, 2007 07:04,   


For Lane Evans, “Friend of Koreans” has always been his middle name.

The 55-year-old former U.S. congressman has been a remarkable “pro-human rights politician” who has played a leading role in raising the issue of the Japanese military’s forcible conscription of comfort women in the U.S. Congress.

Until his retirement late last year due to Parkinson’s disease, he served as congressman for 24 years, always dedicating himself to enhancing the human rights of minorities, including Koreans, and the marginalized. He himself, however, has gone through enormous suffering and hardship as he has helped people around him in need of help even during his own hard struggle against a crippling disease.

His time-honored friendship with Seo Ok-ja, an activist supporting comfort women and the president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women, reportedly developed into plans for marriage.

Lonely Life of a Retired Congressman-

Sources from the U.S. Congress hinted on March 13 that the former congressman is living in a two-bedroom townhouse in a village for care recipients in Moline, Illinois. Though his brother is registered as living with him, he is in a miserable situation in which the only person actually taking care of him is a caregiver visiting him on daytime.

A 12-term congressman serving for 24 years, Evans has been such a man of integrity that he has not amassed that much money. Nevertheless, he has always been a “giving tree” that never turns down requests for help even when he himself has a hard time. The second eldest of three brothers, he has long provided financial support for the family of his younger brother. After his health dramatically deteriorated early last year and he declared he would not run for another election in March, his brother registered himself as the former congressman’s attorney-in-fact. The Court, however, ruled in June that his chief of staff, Dennis King, take the place of his attorney-in-fact and that a bank manage his property.

The Disease and Touching Love-

Having served in U.S. Marine Corps, Evans graduated from Georgetown University Law School and worked as a human rights lawyer for children and the poor. In 1982, at the age of 31, he was elected a congressman representing the Democratic Party in the 17th electoral district in Illinois, a traditionally Republican area.

He was a healthy politician—both in mind and body—who was all right even after working day and night for several days. Then around 1995, he faced the pain of Parkinson’s disease.

In January 2006, he was in such a bad state of health that he was sent to emergency room during a visit to Korea at the invitation of the National Assembly of Korea. Released after spending three weeks at a military hospital in Washington, he stayed for about six weeks at the home of Seo Ok-ja in the State of Maryland nearby Washington. The two first met each other as invited speakers for the regular general meeting of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women in 2000, and have since developed a friendship.

Seo, who went to the U.S. in 1987 and got a PhD in social psychology, is now a professor of social psychology at Washington Bible College in Maryland.

When hospitalized, he was so sick that he could not even have meals. Thanks to Seo, who sincerely took care of him, however, his health condition improved. Evans went back to Illinois when he improved to the extent that he could go up and down the stairs for himself.

On a summer night last year, she said he called her at midnight and lamented he was “having such a hard time.” Arriving in Illinois a few days later, she found him lying on the carpet in a garret.

Though his life might be tough and lonesome, he was still hailed a hero when he went outside. Whenever he visited events despite his ailing health, residents of his electoral district held his hand and told him how disappointed they were about his retirement, saying, “We still love you.”

Maybe he was sick and tired of his long and lonely struggle against the disease. Once a determined bachelor, the former congressmen in May last year asked Seo, who also was a single, to marry him. Surprised by his unexpected proposal, she asked for more time to contemplate the issue. Seo said that though the two have truly trusted and respected each other, they have not even had a single kiss. If one insisted on defining the relationship between the two, she explained, the answer would probably be something close to platonic love or comradeship.

After watching him fight the disease for a couple of months, Seo finally said yes to him in October, thinking he “needed someone to take care of him right next to him.” This time, however, his younger brother and Dennis King, his former chief of staff and attorney-in-fact, strongly opposed the marriage. She did not want to go ahead with the marriage suffering from unfair, “worldly” misunderstandings. What broke her heart, however, was his lonely and difficult struggle against the disease.

Since U.S. Congress adjourned late last year, it has become harder for outsiders to contact the former congressman. The Korean government sought to honor him with the Order of Diplomatic Service Merit Gwanghwa Medal, but it could not even send it to him, as his attorney-in-fact did not connect it with him. In November last year, three Korean energy therapists went to the U.S. at their own expense to treat him, but they returned without meeting him. This reporter also tried to contact his former chief of staff King several times, but has gotten no response from him.

sechepa@donga.com srkim@donga.com