NOVATO, Calif. — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon embraced the 99-year-old woman he calls his “American Mom” Thursday on a nostalgic visit to her home, where as a high school student from war-ravaged South Korea he spent his first days in the United States experiencing culture shock at the country’s riches.
Libba Patterson hugged the U.N. chief back and later had tears in her eyes when she spoke about how 18-year-old “Ki-moon” became her fourth child and part of her family during his eight-day visit in 1962.
“He’s still my kid,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press, her voice breaking. “He was just ... like our own, and to me, today, underneath all the glory and names and what have you that he’s achieved, he’s still Ki-moon, our son.”
Ban responded saying, “Yes, I’m still her kid and she’s still my American mom.”
“I have two moms, one in Korea and one here,” he said. “More than half a century I’ve been keeping contact. ... She’s still very alert, good memory, and I’m very happy.”
Ban, whose family was forced to flee their home during the Korean War, reflected on how he got to the United States and the crucial role the month-long visit had in shaping his life.
Both the Red Cross and the United Nations were instrumental in helping all Koreans during the war, he said, so in high school he participated in many Red Cross activities. In his senior year, he entered a Red Cross English essay competition to win a place in its program for international students to visit America ‚Äî and he won.
Libba Patterson, whose official first names are Mary Elizabeth, worked for the American Red Cross at nearby Hamilton Air Force Base and had a 17-year-old son Michael ‚Äî close to Ban’s age ‚Äî so that’s how the family was chosen to host him.
Ban said everything in the U.S. was new and shocking for a “very young, poor country boy from Korea.” He was dazzled by the beauty of nearby San Francisco ‚Äî the first American city he saw ‚Äî and shocked at the modern living conditions for Americans compared with those at home.
America seemed “a sort of paradise,” Ban said.
The 120 students from about 40 countries who came to the U.S. under Red Cross auspices spent their final week in Washington.
“The most life-changing moment came when I was invited to the White House on Aug. 29, 1962,” Ban recalled. “We were received by John F. Kennedy ... the most admired leader at that time.”
He said one thing that Kennedy said had a huge impact on him.
The president told the students that “world leaders do not get along well but you do since you are young people, and there are no boundaries among the countries. The boundaries have no meaning. What is important is whether you are ready to provide your helping hand to other people,” Ban said.
As he travelled in the United States, he said he thought about those words and his future.
He decided that “the best way for me to contribute to my home country which was war-torn, devastated, very poor” was to “be a diplomat.”
When he returned home, Ban applied to the Department International Relations at Seoul National University, which only took 20 students. Competition was intense but he won a place, and that led to his career as a diplomat starting in 1970, rising to ambassador, foreign minister and secretary-general of the United Nations for the last 9 1/2 years.
Visiting his American Mom for the last time as U.N. chief before his term ends on Dec. 31, he recalled getting on an airplane and flying across the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
“It all happened unexpectedly, but I think looking back many, many decades there must have been something which led me to become secretary-general, and to have known her,” Ban said. “So there must have been something greater which has been guiding me.”
A portrait of Ban Ki-moon has pride of place in the Patterson living room and there are photos of the secretary-general and his American Mom, including in South Korea where she visited when he was foreign minister.
With four generations of the Patterson family in the room, Ban presented her with an engraved silver tray saying: “Mrs. Libba Patterson, my American Mom with the deepest appreciation and heartfelt affection.”
She will celebrate her 100th birthday next May and Ban said he hopes to come back for the party.