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Longtime friendship now funds Emory students with Korean roots

Former Emory President Jim Laney (center), scholarship donor and former Emory Board of Trustees Chairman Brad Currey (brown jacket) and Emory College Dean Michael Elliott (back row) gather to celebrate nine current Laney Scholars. Emory Photo/Video.

Before receiving the Laney Scholarship, Max Ahn worked 70 hours a week all summer at a Korean restaurant in Gwinnett County to help pay for his Emory education — a double major in chemistry and neuroscience and behavioral biology.

The scholarship gave Ahn his time back, and introduced him to two friends from the Greatest Generation — James T. Laney and Bradley N. Currey Jr. — who continue to fuel Emory’s growth.

Laney, Emory’s president from 1977 to 1993, and Currey, former chair of the Emory Board of Trustees, helped lead Emory’s rise from a solid regional school to a leading global research university. For 70 years, Laney has been involved in South Korea’s transformation into an economic powerhouse, and every current Laney Scholar has family ties to that country.

“I am thankful for this scholarship,” Ahn told them at a recent lunch for a dozen Laney Scholars. “When I moved here from South Korea in eighth grade, I didn’t speak English at all.” 

“Thank Mr. Currey,” Laney, age 90, responded, pointing to his friend, who is 88. “I couldn’t have done it without this engine of power.” 

To honor their long friendship, Currey followed the tradition of philanthropy that had transformed Emory by establishing the James T. Laney Endowed Scholarship Fund in 2012. The Laney Scholarship supports Emory College students who have financial need, and recipients are Korean, Korean American or show interest in Korean or East Asian cultures.

Korea has had a close relationship with Emory for 125 years, when Yun Ch’i-Ho 1893C 1908G became Emory’s first international graduate. Ho played an instrumental role in founding the Methodist Church in Korea and writing the country’s national anthem.

Today, Emory and South Korea are strategic partners, partly because of the vibrant alumni network there. Across campus, among Emory’s 3,104 international students and 1,044 international scholars, South Korea is the most common home country after China. 

A legacy of leadership and support

Laney was barely college age when he first visited South Korea as an American soldier assigned to support the exit of the Japanese colonial powers after World War II. “That was before your parents and maybe your grandparents were born,” he told the scholarship students. 

Laney returned to Seoul in the early 1960s to teach at Yonsei University, as South Korea was creating the foundation for economic success. After stepping down as Emory president, Laney served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1993 to 1997.

While Laney was offering support to Korea and leadership to Emory, Currey put his support behind Laney and Emory in the critical time right after the 1979 historic Woodruff gift of $105 million. Currey served on the Emory Board of Trustees for 20 years ending in 2000. He was chairman from 1994 to 2000, and helped lay the groundwork for greater alumni participation on the board and for the appointment of more women trustees. He also provided volunteer leadership to the Woodruff Arts Center and other civic organizations.

Emory Historian Gary Hauk describes Currey as “an indefatigable advocate of the university and a strong leader.”

“Brad’s folksy way puts people at ease, but behind that downhome comfort with people is a very astute, retentive and brilliant mind. Brad and Jim have been, for decades, joined in intellectual as well as personal friendship,” Hauk says. “They share a deep faith, an appreciation for art and music, and a Southern upbringing transcended by an ennobling, compassionate humanity. It’s easy to see the foundation for a profound and lasting friendship.”

The Korean War had also been part of Currey’s early adulthood; he served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s. After discharge, he joined Trust Company of Georgia, rising to executive vice president and director of the bank holding company. He retired as chairman and CEO of Rock-Tenn Company, which manufactures packaging and recycled paperboard products (annual sales: $2 billion). 

As an endowed fund, the Laney Endowed Scholarship Fund will benefit students in perpetuity. As a donor, Currey urged the scholarship students to educate themselves about financial figures by repeating advice he gives his 10 grandchildren.

“Please take an accounting class before you get out of Emory, so you understand debits, credits and cash flow,” Currey said. “If you don’t understand basic accounting, the world will deliberately pull the wool over your eyes for the rest of your life… whether you are in business, in college or church, you’ve got to understand the numbers.” 

Turning to Laney, Currey teased his friend about “jumping ship” at Emory to become ambassador to Korea, where he made headlines for his language skills.

“He was the first ambassador to speak Korean,” Currey said. “That was one of the things that caused me to think of him as one of my heroes. It was so important that he could speak the language and be recognized for that by everyone there.” 

The students asked Laney if he still spoke Korean, then laughed when Laney replied with a phrase in Korean that means “a little bit.”

“Dr. Laney did a magnificent job of transforming Emory from being a nice regional college into a national and international university, and that trajectory is continuing,” Currey said. “I love being here to see you all. This Laney Scholarship started because of how much Dr. Laney meant to Korea and how much Korea has meant to Emory.” 

Laney and Currey listened intently as the scholarship students shared stories from Emory and the country that brought them together.

Eungjae “NJ” Kim 19C, a member of Emory’s baseball team, has applied for a Fulbright to teach English in South Korea. Kayla Lee 20C, a human health and international studies major, mentioned the Liberty in North Korea Club, which raises money to help refugees from there. Rachel Kim 20C described her anthropology honors research in Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian American identity.

As the gathering wrapped up, Laney praised the students. “I’m very impressed,” he said of their Emory work and the country they represent.  “Its transformation has been without parallel anywhere in the world. You’ve enjoyed a good blastoff.”

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