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For ‘Book grandma,’ charity is lifetime mission

79-year-old Ryu receives government order for helping underprivileged students

For 30 years, she has been a benefactor for more than 150 students.

Ryu Yang-sun, 79, the owner of a small salted fish shop in Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, has been giving books and scholarships to young students in financial difficulties.

“I want to be the pillar of support for poor students so that they can definitely continue their education,” she said.

Ryu was born into a poor family in which going to a school was a luxury that could not be afforded. Although she was very enthusiastic about learning, she was often scolded by her father whenever she lit a lantern to read. According to Ryu, her father not only discouraged her from going to school, but also considered women’s education a waste. Despite Ryu’s endeavors to continue studying in secret, the outbreak of the Korean War shattered every last hope she had for a proper education.

After she was divorced by her spouse’s family because she could not bear a child, she opened a small salted fish store in Noryangjin market. From there, she conceived the idea of helping young students so that they could achieve what she could not.

“It is not just the wealthy who donate. The reason I earn money is to be able to share.”

Selling salted fish is not exactly the ideal way of earning a fortune. Nonetheless, her savings grew steadily from her frugality and diligence. Even during winter, she works in an unheated store to save on electricity.

Ryu had an adopted daughter. She had high hopes for her and wanted to raise her as a professor. Unfortunately, her daughter was hurt in a car accident and suffered from a mental disability as a result until she died. However, Ryu’s devotion to education did not falter.

Instead of raising one child, Ryu decided to raise as many young students as she could. She wanted to quench her own yearning for knowledge through supporting the dreams of poor students. 
Ryu Yang-sun at her salted fish store in Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in southwesetern Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Ryu Yang-sun at her salted fish store in Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in southwesetern Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“I hope if we can give a little bit of what we spend to the neglected children, they would take it more preciously than any jewel and grow up to be the pillars of our society without desponding about the world.”

Although she donates to various organizations, education has been her utmost priority. In 1998, Konkuk University founded a scholarship named after Ryu Yang-sun. And in 1999, Hanseo University established a scholarship committee in her name.

The relationship between Ryu and Hanseo University is captivating. Ryu initially wanted to open her own university in which students would not have to worry about money and devote themselves to the joy of learning.

Her dream started to change direction since the meeting between Ryu and Ham Kee-sun, dean and founder of Hanseo University. When Ryu heard that Ham was building a university in Seosan, her hometown, she paid close attention.

For a full year, Ryu occasionally visited Ham and observed his personality. Ham was just like Ryu in that he never wasted anything and was building a school on a tight budget.

“When I first heard about the school, I thought it was just another wealthy man building a school in Seosan … I thought a doctor would not even know how to be frugal, but Ham was different.”

Instead of building her own school, Ryu decided to let Hanseo University do what she always wanted the most: to help students in need. In the university’s second year, Ryu started donating buildings and real estate she had bought in preparation for her later years. The sum of Ryu’s donation to Hanseo University in the first year alone was more than 1 billion won ($874 million).

Although Ryu has never attended a school beyond elementary level, she is well aware of the importance of preserving and promoting culture and history.

“I was born during the Japanese colonization and had to live through the Korean War,” she said in a previous interview. “I do not have tears to shed anymore for the education I could not receive, but I hope our students learn their history and lead the future in the right way.”

In fact, Ryu has been donating the whole series of “The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” to many primary, middle and high schools and universities.

Not surprisingly, Ryu is also known to many as a “book grandma.” She has sent nearly 100,000 books to country schools and nursing homes, and the total number of books she presented to various individuals is nearly 300 million.

“Money can only be spent on students for a time, while books last forever, and the knowledge you gain from reading books becomes the nourishment for your mind.”

Her years of devotion of helping others did not go unnoticed. In 1986, Ryu was awarded the Citizen Prize for Good Conduct and in 1989, the first annual Seoul Citizen Award. And most recently, she received the Order of Civil Merit Dongbaek Medal, on July 6, by President Lee Myung-bak.

When asked about her reflections on receiving the award, she told The Korea Herald, “I think the medal is a reminder that I should try harder. All I have done so far was just pretension.”

She also acknowledged the importance of parental education.

“While schools are great places to learn new knowledge, you nevertheless learn the most from your parents,” she said. As a matter of fact, Ryu claims that her belief in charitable giving is thanks to her mother.

According to Ryu, her mother never turned away hungry people who knocked on their door.

Ryu used to receive lots of letters from those she had helped, but now she rarely gets any. During the interview, she seemed quite frail, her hands shaking while she sat responding to questions.

When asked about her wish, she said, “To be able to sell salted fish until my health allows me, so that I can keep on sharing what I earn.”

By Kim Jung-ho, Intern reporter (
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