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WESTLAKE : Korean Granddad Is Making the Grade

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Chul-Ho Lee doesn’t really need to learn English. He led a full, successful life in Korea before coming to the United States six years ago to retire. He doesn’t need it to get a job, because his eight children help support him. And he doesn’t need it to make new friends, because they speak Korean.

But he is on a mission to become fluent in English: “I have to graduate. This is very important. It is for my life.”

Years after getting a teaching degree from a North Korean college, 71-year-old Lee is enrolled as a high school student at Belmont Community Adult School in Westlake, preparing for a high school diploma. He has been studying since April, 1992.

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Lee starts his day at 4:30 by studying for an hour. Then he takes a walk with his wife, eats breakfast, and catches the bus to school, where he stays from 8 to 3. His courses include typing, American literature and algebra. He eats lunch in the school cafeteria with adult classmates as well as high-school-age students, with whom he likes to practice English. Then he goes home to rest and eat dinner before returning to school for more classes.

He exudes pride in his academic accomplishments and eagerness to learn more in classes that started last month.

Lee taught mathematics for a year, so he has a good grasp of it, but other subjects require more study. When he practices social studies vocabulary words, immigrant is one he knows. “We are immigrants,” he said, pointing to his wife, Young Sun Lee, 67.

The Lees have eight children, all college-educated, and 14 grandchildren. Six of his children still live in Korea, one in Australia, and one daughter, Jung-In Lee, 41, lives in Walnut and is a reporter for the Korea Times.

She said her father speaks better English than she does, although she has been living in the United States five years longer: “His mind is very young. He thinks he’s 16.”

“He’s always pushing (English) on my mom,” she said, adding that her mother quit a job in the garment industry so that she could begin English classes in January.

She wishes her son, John Kim, 17, were as motivated as her father about school work. “Sometimes he hates to study, so I tell him, ‘Your grandfather is very old but he likes to study.”

Lee draws strength from a Korean proverb he has hung over his desk. Loosely translated, it means: “Be patient with everything and you will reach your goals.”

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“It is my motto,” he said.

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