|Teaching in Seoul circa 1955.|
By Robert Neff
|Fred Dustin as a young soldier in Korea circa 1952.|
Years later, when asked when and why he fell in love with Korea, he would bristle and deny he had, but his actions dispelled his claims. His photographs from the Korean War rarely contained images of despair or destruction but concentrated on the innocence of youth (Korean children and young soldiers ― Korean and American) while others captured the efforts of civilians to go about their daily lives despite the war.
After the war, Dustin returned to the United States, completed his degree in education, and came back to Korea in 1955 to teach at what is now Yonsei University. Like many young men, he was adventurous and flittered through several occupations seeking himself. He worked at a gold mine in the southern part of the country, tried his hand as a copy editor for a newspaper, raised poultry, worked for an NGO group and even sold fish.
Dustin confided to me on several occasions (and then later denied ― depending on his mood) that one of the reasons he had become a gold miner was to escape the attentions of a girl from back home who had followed him to Korea in hopes of marrying him. Dustin was not ready for marriage and quickly introduced her to a friend and then made good his escape to the isolated mountains where the mine was located. He didn't return until the young lady was married to his friend.
|The wedding of Fred and Marie-Louis Dustin, May 1, 1971.|
|Marie-Louis and their old truck, circa September 1972.|
This all changed one morning in August 1968. While strolling along a beach in southern Korea he met Marie-Louis Gephardt. She was, according to Dustin, a lanky girl and not overly beautiful but there was something special about her. They were certainly an odd couple. He was a rough adventurer ― heavy smoking and hard drinking ― seeking a way to make a living in Korea while she was a Lutheran missionary ― devoted to her faith (Dustin always liked to remind me that she was a "moderate Lutheran" and so she accepted him even with all his faults).
They dated a couple of years before Dustin proposed marriage. It is a shame he never deigned to tell me how and where he proposed ― perhaps it was too personal or special to share.
They were married in Seoul on May 1, 1971. The smiles of happiness they wore masked the fears and sadness they held in their hearts. Marriage is always filled with sacrifices and challenges but few people are forced to face them before the wedding.
During her pre-marriage physical, Marie-Louis was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctor believed that, at best, she had two years to live.
Despite the dire prognosis, the two decided to go on with their wedding with the stipulation that they move to Jeju Island where Dustin owned 30 acres of stone and grass. Here he would build her a "dream house in the country" where she could concentrate on her writing during her finals days.
|Marie-Louis in front of their house on Jeju, circa September 1972.|
They arrived on Jeju Island in June 1971. The land was covered with nothing but stones and grass and they were forced to live in a tent "with no water except what we carried from the village or found after rain; no food except after an hour bus ride to Jeju City's market." It was a life filled "with hardships and challenges as only an adventure can be."
Over the next two years the homestead improved. An old truck was purchased for a couple of hundred dollars, the exterior of the house was completed, trees were planted and a wall of stone placed around a neat little yard of grass. But Marie-Louis' health did not improve and grew worse daily.
Marie-Louis never got to see the house completely finished before she died in August 1973 ― she had returned to the United States in her final few months for treatment and to be near her father. For her father, a Lutheran minister, it must have been extremely difficult. His own wife, Marie-Louis' mother, had died at the same age as his daughter from the same type of cancer.
|The house with the pecan tree ― it has been trimmed in this picture. Circa 2015|
For Dustin, it was devastating. "I was pretty much a wreck relying on magnums of soju and [makgeolli] to get me through the days and nights," he confessed. And yet, he still had to go on.
His father-in-law, realizing the pain, sent Dustin several pecan tree seeds to plant in her memory in front of the house. Most of them died but one thrived and over the next four decades grew so much that it towered over the house.
It was the first thing that greeted him in the morning as he left for the maze and was a constant reminder of the loss of his wife. Many of his guests seemed unaware of the significance it played in his life.
Dustin never remarried. His loneliness was kept at bay by the thousands of guests at the maze, friends and employees, and his legions of feline friends. He amused himself with acts of philanthropy ― too many to mention ― and pet projects. And, fortunately for me, sharing tales of his past.
|The path leading to the house ― all of the trees were planted by Dustin. Circa 2015.|
Several years ago, I wrote: "Like the pecan tree in his yard, Dustin's roots on Jeju Island run deep and he will long be remembered not just for the success of the maze but for his successful role as a member of his community."
Not too long after I wrote that, the tree's towering height was deemed a threat to the home. There was a real possibility that one of the frequent storms would cause it to fall onto the house and destroy it ― possibly killing Dustin and his beloved cats. So, it was decided to cut most of it down.
After the tree was trimmed down, Dustin expressed the feeling that it seemed wrong ― that perhaps it was a portent of something. He didn't use the word evil, but instead just let his voice fall off.
Last year, on May 5 (Children's Day), Jeju lost a long-time foreign resident and philanthropist and I lost a friend and mentor. Today (January 12) would have been his 89th birthday and I will remember him by eating popcorn and drinking grape juice (one of his favorite snacks) and remembering all the tales he told me while we sat in front of his wood stove.
Rest in peace my old friend.
|Dustin loved books, his library was filled with them. Circa 2015|
|The old wood stove that provided heat and a setting for memories of the past to be retold. Circa 2015.|