Updated: Jan. 16, 2011 11:17 p.m.
He sells possessions to feed kids in Africa
There are universal truths about humanity and the planet behind the smiling eyes of George Namkung.
They are lessons learned during a life that has seen civil war in China, his Korean grandparents joining their government-in-exile in Shanghai, discrimination in post-World War II Japan and more than a bit of Irish luck.
Namkung reveals his simplest and most accessible truth early in our conversation. He sweeps his hand past the marble floors, the spacious hallway and the English garden around his home in Newport Coast’s Pelican Hill.
It’s a gesture that says, “None of this matters.”
Dismissing wealth might seem easy for a guy with an ocean view in one of Orange County’s most exclusive communities. But study Namkung’s face for a moment and you realize he doesn’t just mean what he says. He feels it. Deeply.
At a certain point, things are only that — things.
That’s why Namkung is downsizing. He’s selling the house and retiring from Namkung Promotions Inc., the marketing business he spent most of his life building.
Instead, Namkung, 68, will focus on his passion: Raising money to feed children who live in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.
Namkung’s commitment to helping kids was born six years ago, in a dirt-floor school house.
But history suggests building global bridges was his life-long destiny.
Namkung was born in 1942, in Shanghai, in war-torn China. His father was a doctor and his parents kept a large bucket of rice near the front door to help feed the starving. It’s something Namkung never forgot.
The civil war ended in 1949, when Namkung was 7, and the violence turned into chaos. The Namkungs fled on for Hong Kong.
But after three years, Namkung’s father feared the Chinese would invade the British colony. So the Namkungs hopped a freighter to Japan and, during the trip, a huge typhoon nearly sank the ship. The family lost everything.
Coming of age as an English-speaking Korean in post-World War II Japan was tough. But there also was excitement in the air, as Japan rebuilt itself as a modern country.
Namkung was admitted to the prestigious International Christian University in Tokyo. It meant he would need to learn to read and write Japanese.
On the wooded campus of ICU, Namkung worked day and night. He mastered Japanese, aced his classes and started a school to prepare Japanese businessmen for working overseas.
Exhausted, Namkung ended up in the hospital near death.
Why choose such a difficult path?
After living through a civil war, nearly drowning at sea and surviving roughnecks, Namkung thought he could do anything.
The thing is, he could, almost.
The entrepreneur offers perhaps his most significant bit of wisdom: “We all have more potential than we realize.”
To fulfill his potential, Namkung moved to the United States.
In San Francisco, Namkung tapped into his entrepreneurial expertise and turned Namkung Promotions Inc. into a leading maker of so-called in-pak toys, the kinds of toys you find in cereal boxes and, of late, in the “Cool Kids Combo” sold at Carl’s Jr.
But even as the business grew, he never forgot what he learned while handing out rice from his front door in Shanghai. Give back. He became a Big Brother and, later, a volunteer instructor in Junior Achievement.
It was around this time when Irish luck came into Namkung’s life. Born in Dublin, Ireland, her name was Joanne Jacobs and she was full of laughter and light.
Namkung was a workaholic disguised as a tennis-playing businessman. But he knew he needed balance in his life and this Irish woman whom he loved could help him.
Namkung and Joanne raised two daughters, Chelsea and Victoria, and eventually moved to Pelican Hill. As his 60th birthday approached, in 2002, Namkung was in the best health of his life, playing tennis, working out and kick boxing.
That’s when he learned that the snows of Kilimanjaro are melting. He decided to climb the mountain and see the African glaciers before they disappeared.
On summit day, he gasped for oxygen in the freezing temperatures. But he pressed on. And as the sun rose, Namkung looked out over the African plains – watching the birth of a new day over the land where human life originated.
It was a moment that linked Namkung to humanity’s past.
And, while he didn’t know it, there was a little girl in the land beneath the mountain who would link him to humanity’s future.
After the climb, Namkung visited local schools. On his last day, he stood in front of a class and saw kids in tattered clothes. They couldn’t afford lunch, but they greeted Namkung with smiles.
Namkung had never seen a group of children so eager to learn — not in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco or Orange County.
Namkung wondered: Can I help?
Then a girl said her goodbyes. “May you live a long and healthy life so we may have the opportunity to meet again.”
Namkung had no choice.
Since then, Namkung, along with his wife and daughters, has built Kids of Kilimanjaro into a foundation that spends $300,000 a year to feed lunch five days a week to 15,000 children.
Much of the effort has been funded by business. Recently, GNLD, an international nutrition company, came aboard as the founding corporate sponsor.
I take a final look around his home. One of Namkung’s comments seems to echo off the walls.
“I have lots of hungry kids waiting for me.”
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