Historical photos of Lee descendants

An old Chinese proverb—“remember the source of the water when you drink it”—reminds us that our past is important.

Often the demands of day-to-day life preclude us from giving more than a fleeting thought to those who came before us. But sometimes a life event, such as a death or the discovery of old journals in a dusty attic, can kindle an interest and launch a journey.

For Jason Yeo, a 43-year-old entrepreneur from Los Angeles, the catalyst was the anticipation of starting a family. As he and his wife talked about having a baby and naming him or her “Lee” in honor of Yeo’s grandfather, Yeo suddenly longed to know more about the smiling paternal figure he knew only through fuzzy childhood memories.

He started his quest by reaching out to his San Francisco cousin, Amy Pang Moon. Ironically, Moon had been doing her own research on their grandfather, whom she describes as having “near mythical status” in her family, due to his triumph over unfortunate circumstances as a child and his “Renaissance man-like excellence in intellectual and athletic pursuits.”

Moon directed Yeo to an unexpected source she had discovered for information on their esteemed grandfather, a place unlikely for a man of Chinese descent to have spent his formative years in 1920s America. As it turns out, Dr. Chun C. Lee, BSME ’27, Hon.D. ’73 is a favored son of Ohio Northern University.

Treasure trove in University Archives

Every year Matt Francis, ONU archivist, fields approximately 25-50 requests from individuals looking for information on an ancestor. The requests fall into two main categories, he says. There are those simply wanting to confirm a factual detail, such as a graduation year; and then there are those looking for a deeper connection. Yeo and Moon fall into the latter category.

“Some people really want to know what their ancestor was like and what their experience at ONU was like,” he says. “They seek to walk in their footsteps and want that spiritual connection.”

Colleges and universities can be ideal for genealogical research, adds Francis, because their archives contain both quantitative and qualitative materials. Through yearbooks, local newspapers, concert programs, student publications and more, it’s possible to discover an ancestor’s college-era activities and friends, thereby gaining insight into their personality.

At ONU in particular—because it’s a small university situated in a small village—there’s a high likelihood that at least some records exist of a student’s experience, says Francis. He enjoys helping families with their research requests, and often discovers interesting things about ONU’s past along the way.

Yeo and Moon were amazed that Francis was able to uncover a treasure trove of information about their grandfather’s time at ONU. They learned he was a star pitcher on the varsity baseball team and also played basketball and football. He was involved in the campus YMCA, served as secretary and president for the campus International Club, and served as treasurer for ONU’s chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. ONU awarded him a Centennial Citation in 1971; an honorary doctorate of engineering degree in 1973; and inducted him into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984.

The richest find that Moon had in her possession was an autobiography penned by Lee himself and published in the November 1967 issue of Ohio Northern Alumnus magazine. In the article, Lee tells the story of his fascinating life’s journey that brought him from China to America to ONU—and then back again.

The life of Dr. Chun Lee

Lee’s autobiography reveals an individual who lived a life of purpose and positivity, despite experiencing numerous hardships. Highly intelligent, he made the most of his God-given gifts, of which he had many, from sports to engineering, mathematics to music.

Lee was born in China in 1902, where his father played a significant role in the Chinese Revolution of 1911 that successfully overthrew the Qing Dynasty and ended imperial rule. When Lee was just 9 years old, he came to the United States with his father. He stayed with family friends in San Francisco at a Chinese Methodist Church while his father traveled the U.S. giving lectures. His father returned to China without him, and was later killed, leaving Lee stranded in the U.S. and unable to return to his mother and siblings in China. Lee recounted: “At my young age I should have had parents care instead of living alone in a foreign country earning my own living.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. was not a hospitable place for people of Chinese descent, and they faced widespread discrimination. In 1882, spurred by growing hostility to Chinese American workers, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that essentially banned all Chinese immigration into the U.S. Congress made no meaningful change to this act until the 1950s.

Throughout elementary school and high school, Lee worked jobs like peeling potatoes and picking fruit to support himself. An excellent student, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkley, but according to his son, William Lee, he left UC Berkley because of discrimination. He made his way to Cleveland where he came across an ONU catalog in the Cleveland Public Library. He traveled to Ada and enrolled in the mechanical engineering program. “He was much more happy at ONU,” says William. “From what I know, he was treated very well.”

By his own account, it seems Lee’s experience at ONU in the 1920s was positive and enriching. He excelled in the classroom and participated in athletics and other extracurriculars. Lee fondly recounted pitching an 11-inning game against Ashland College. ONU won the game and a professional baseball scout approached him to sign up.

At one point, he “went broke” but ONU’s treasurer allowed him to continue school and pay later. On graduation day, Lee recalled feeling “happy, proud and thankful as I was sad at the moment” to be leaving his alma mater. He made sure to say goodbye to one of his favorite teachers—T.J. Smull.

Not long after graduating, Lee returned to China to be reunited with his mother and siblings. “At last, I came home in triumph, a worthy son, with a Degree in learning from America!” he wrote.

Lee became a prominent engineer in China, overseeing critical infrastructure projects in the city of Canton (now known as Guangzhou). The water system he designed produced millions of gallons of safe drinking water for city residents, reducing the spread of typhoid. He also invented a charcoal producer for generating charcoal gas to run automobile engines. And, he started an engineering school and introduced American football to youth in the city.

Unfortunately, during the Japanese invasion of China, Lee and his wife and three children—William, Anna and Mabel— had to flee to Hong Kong. They returned to China only to lose all their worldly belongings and become refugees in Hong Kong once again due to the Communist revolution. In 1959, Lee and his family were able to settle in the U.S., thanks to the American Refugee Chinese, Inc. organization.

Back in the U.S., Lee became a store owner in San Francisco, dabbled in poetry, composed several jazz tunes that were professionally recorded, and completed a manuscript of 520 solved mathematical problems.

He kept in touch with ONU administrators and forged a friendship with President Samuel Meyer, who visited him several times in San Francisco. Lee also returned to campus on a few occasions. According to his family, he was incredibly proud when ONU conferred upon him an honorary doctorate in 1973 and inducted him into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984. “My father was very honored by these accolades, as they were lifetime achievements for him,” said William.

In Lee’s own words, at the end of his autobiography, he wrote that Ohio Northern University was the “institution that taught me to withstand hardships, serve humanity, and led me to the betterment of society. From the source of the great Ohio Northern University, I was privileged to direct some of the flow of knowledge and character to my homeland in a distant hemisphere. I am proud to be one of the Sons of ONU—very proud and very grateful.”

Family insight

Yeo (Mabel’s son) and Moon (Anna’s daughter) were 9 and 16 years of age respectively when Lee died on September 27, 1986, just a couple of weeks shy of his 84th birthday. Both have happy memories of their grandfather’s kind and loving nature. Yeo remembers his grandfather smiling and laughing while he sat on his lap and played with a calculator. Moon remembers the poems her grandfather would write and include in sentimental birthday and holiday cards “which were always signed in his beautiful, flowing cursive writing ‘With Heaps of Love.” “He was truly a remarkable person,” she said

Yet youthful memories are incomplete, and both wish they’d gotten the chance to know him better. They are grateful to ONU for aiding them in their quest to uncover details about his life. “My family is very thankful that ONU took the time to keep all this information and to share it with us,” says Yeo. “It’s been amazing.”

Through exploring Lee’s ONU ties, Yeo has not only learned more about his grandfather, but about himself. He was pleased to discover that he shares many similar personality traits with his grandfather. “I had no idea that he was a pitcher at ONU,” he says. “I played high school basketball, tennis and soccer, so we share a love of sports. Additionally, my grandfather traveled back and forth between China and America, and I’ve spent the last 10 years traveling internationally.”  

Moon says her grandfather’s story has piqued the interest of her two sports-crazy sons, one of whom is also a baseball pitcher. Christopher, a high school senior, is writing a senior project titled “Asian Representation in Sports.” “I’d love for him to include his great grandfather in his research,” says Moon, “particularly to find the stories behind his sports career at ONU, pitching for Toledo Class AA teams, coaching a semi-pro football team, and efforts to bring American football to China.”

Yeo says someday he and wife would like to visit ONU’s campus and see firsthand the institution that played such a big part in his grandfather’s life. But for now, he and Moon’s research on their grandfather’s life will continue. The autobiography that Lee wrote for ONU provides a blueprint of places and locations where they can search.

ONU Archives, meanwhile, has a strategic goal to “preserve, share and amplify diverse voices from the ONU community,” says Francis, adding that he’s thrilled to add Mr. Lee’s voice to the holdings. He’s also ready and willing to help other families searching for information on their ancestors who taught or studied at ONU. “Everyone’s life is a different story,” he reflected, “and we can make our personal story all the more meaningful when we connect it to the larger stories of those who came before us. It gives us roots.”