Lillian Lee Kim, 85, writer, community leader

September 18, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Lillian Lee Kim, a prominent member of Baltimore's Chinese-American community and director of the Chinese Language School at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church, died of heart failure Wednesday at Sunrise of Pikesville, an assisted-living facility. She was 85.

Mrs. Kim, who lived in Anneslie for many years until moving to the assisted-living community, led a varied and full life.

She had been an author, newspaper correspondent, co-owner of a laundry and a City Hall secretary during the administrations of Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III and William Donald Schaefer.

Since 1954, she had been the backbone of the city's annual Chinese Lunar New Year Festival sponsored by Grace and St. Peter's.

Known as the unofficial matriarch of Baltimore's Chinese-American community, the diminutive Mrs. Kim - who favored red dresses and whose smiling face was highlighted by rimless gold glasses - had a seemingly bottomless reserve of energy and enthusiasm.

"She was just a great lady who had a long and productive life. She was always up, always smiling and always had a great attitude. I just hope a new generation can follow in her footsteps," said Mr. Schaefer, who is now comptroller of Maryland.

Even though Mrs. Kim was extremely gracious, considerate and polite, she wasn't the least bit reticent when it came to speaking her mind.

"Oh, yes, I can remember her coming down to the office a number of times and giving me a talking to," Mr. Schaefer said.

She was born Lillian Lee in Toishan, China, and in 1921 immigrated with her family to Baltimore, where her father, Yick You Lee, opened a laundry near Lexington Market. After his death in 1928, his wife and children continued operating the business.

Mrs. Kim was raised in West Baltimore near Hollins Market, and was a 1936 graduate of Western High School.

After her marriage in 1941 to Herman Kim, she and her husband owned and operated Sam Wah Laundry on South High Street. They later moved the hand laundry to East Baltimore Street and renamed the business Kim's Laundry. Mr. Kim died in 1982.

For more than 70 years, Grace and St. Peter's had been the focal point of Mrs. Kim's spiritual and cultural life.

As a young child, she had attended a language school at the church that taught Chinese immigrants English. By 1954, the school reversed its role and began teaching Chinese residents their native language.

For more than 30 years, Mrs. Kim had been director of the Chinese Language School and, since the 1950s, headed the annual Chinese New Year celebration and dinner held at the church.

She wrote and published a Chinese newsletter for the church's Chinese parishioners and helped immigrants attain citizenship.

"She was indefatigable and quite a remarkable lady. She was like the Energizer Bunny: She just kept going, going and going. Lillian was always doing something," said the Rev. Frederick S. Thomas, rector of Grace and St. Peter's since 1987.

When Mrs. Kim wasn't engaged in church work, she turned her attention to her Anneslie neighborhood. Since 1978, she wrote a weekly column about the area's events for the Towson Times.

"It was simply amazing how much she could find out about a relatively small community. For Lillian, no news was too small," said Paul Milton, who edited the Towson Times for 15 years, and is now executive editor of Patuxent Publishing Co.'s Howard County newspapers.

"She was the ultimate community newspaper columnist because she was so plugged in and so involved. She typed her copy on an old manual typewriter and used to walk from her home to our Towson office to deliver it. She never trusted the mails and in recent years, she'd ride the bus to deliver her copy, which was always two weeks early," he said.

Mr. Milton said she never missed a deadline, and if he cut an item or two from her column, she was "right on the phone making sure it would be in next week's edition."

Mrs. Kim was a familiar presence in her neighborhood, where she enjoyed walking with her small dog.

"She was such a supporter of our community, and she always made sure our events were covered. She's really going to be missed," said Jim Dobson, president of the Anneslie Community Association.

Mrs. Kim's 494-page book, Early Baltimore Chinese Families, a history of the city's Chinese community, was published in 1977. She also was a prolific contributor of letters to newspaper editorial pages and wrote several "I Remember" features for the Sun Magazine.

A funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Grace and St. Peter's, 707 Park Ave.

She is survived by two brothers, Paul Lee of Towson and Thomas Lee of Selbyville, Del.; a sister, Jane Hahn of Wasco, Calif.; and many nieces and nephews.

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