Friday, January 28, 2022

Best-Laid Plans

College photograph of Walter Kong '29Walter Y. L. Kong, member of the class of 1929, was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, only a decade or so after the islands became a United States territory. One of the first Asian-Americans to go to Dartmouth, Kong traveled halfway around the world to receive his college education after attending secondary school in Guangzhou, China. During his college years, and for many years after, Kong planned to return to China to be an educator. Upon receiving his undergraduate degree here, he immediately enrolled in the Teacher's College, Columbia University, and received his master's degree from that institution in 1930. His education complete, Kong went west to San Diego, where a friend had offered him a job managing his store, in the hopes of raising enough money to procure passage back to China.

However, as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. While in San Diego, Kong became a husband, and then a father. He also decided that the quickest way to raise money for travel was by having a business of his own. He started a Chinese arts store in 1932 in Santa Barbara with the intention of shuttering the business once he had enough capital to fund his family's trans-Pacific passage. Still, opening a business during the Great Depression, and then keeping it open, soon occupied so much of his time and energy that his dreams of moving to China became a distant memory. He also discovered, to his delight, that he greatly enjoyed the independence of owning his own endeavor as well as the joys of interacting with his customer. As Kong himself said, "My business experience in Santa Barbara made the picture of teaching in China...unattractive."

Still, despite his decision to be a businessman instead of a teacher, Kong found other ways to lead and to educate those around him, especially with regard to international relations. He was both the director of the Santa Barbara chapter of the United Nations Association and the president of the Santa Barbara China Club, as well as participating in numerous civic organizations. He also published several magazine articles, one of which emphasized the importance of racial empathy and offered practical advice for how Americans from different communities and races could build cross-cultural relationships.

A copy of that article as well as a brief auto-biography, are housed here at Special Collections in Kong's alumni file. Rauner Library has an alumni file for every deceased previous student of the college, all the way back to the 1770s. Come explore the past lives of amazing alumni like Walter Y. L. Kong whenever we're open by walking into Webster Hall and asking our desk staff to help you get started.