DALTON, Ga. — Christianity is for women and poor people.
That’s what Chang Yim learned growing up in his native Korea where his prominent family — like almost everyone else of privilege at the time — was Buddhist. But the now highly successful businessman and community supporter has experienced a lifetime of new discoveries.
In 1957 Chang — an admitted “troublemaker” in school — came to the U.S. to study at Central Missouri University. The English he had learned in Korea was insufficient for such a setting.
“I couldn’t understand one word they were saying,” he said of his professors. But rather than give up, Chang bore down.
“I never slept more than four hours a night,” he said. “I was studying.”
Math and science classes were much easier than the history course that required hearing, reading and writing in an unfamiliar language. By the end of the term, however, Chang had managed a grade of “C” in his history class.
That grade along with grades of “A” in math, physics and chemistry made him an honor student — something that seemed impossible upon arrival.
“When you set your mind to it, you can do it,” said Chang.
Language was not the only challenge faced by the young Korean student who had always been financially secure. It was an act of generosity that led to a new hill to climb.
His father sent a $150 gift that the government allowed, but Chang didn’t really need the additional funds. So he suggested that his father use such money to help poor people in Korea.
The result, however, was that his father stopped sending money altogether, including funds for tuition.
“I took a job at the school cleaning trash cans,” said Chang, a lowly position for someone from a family of such prominence. And, for the summer, he worked at a hotel in upstate New York and put away every dollar possible.
Soon he had amassed $3,000 in savings — a significant amount for a student in the 1950s. “I was so happy,” said Chang.
After graduation he attended the University of Missouri where he received a master’s degree in chemistry — and traveled to various U.S. cities including Los Angeles. There he was offered a job where his chemistry expertise could be used in the making of rubber backing for carpet.
But the job was not in L.A., he was told, but in the “Carpet Capital of the World,” Dalton, Ga. To which Chang responded: “Where in the … is Dalton, Georgia?”
In 1964 Chang moved to the small northwest Georgia town that was vastly different from Los Angeles, most notably in the absence of Asians.
Walking down the streets of Dalton, he noticed being watched by those who were not used to seeing an Asian around. He felt a sense of responsibility for how Koreans and other Asian people would be perceived.
“I represented all Asians — for good or bad,” he said with a smile. “So I had to be very careful.”
Chang’s exceptional abilities led to his becoming vice president of the chemical company — which provided opportunities for international travel including Asia.
His curiosity and business sense were always in play. He would see a product and get an idea that would lead to an opportunity for a new enterprise. Then he would find a partner and start a business.
“I’ve started 29 companies and six were successful,” he said. But some of those were very successful.
“Business is hard,” Chang confessed. “If your mentality is negative, there is not much success.”
A three-fold philosophy emerged that has guided Chang in his endeavors: Find an honest person for a business partner; keep a positive mentality; hope that the timing is right.
Of the latter, he now says: “Try your best and leave it up to God.”
His businesses have ranged widely from selling rubber doormats in Japan to manufacturing in Dalton the popular hand warmers sold widely to outdoor enthusiasts. At age 78, Chang is still on the hunt for new ideas that lead to business opportunities.
Chang considers his family to be his greatest asset. He and his wife Alice — “the most important in my life” — have been married for 53 years.
Together they have three sons and nine grandchildren — whose pictures Chang is always eager to show.
Their sons are highly educated and successful as well. And in recent years Alice began investing in real estate with good success.
Together Chang and Alice formed a foundation called RAHYE — which represents “Respect and honor your elderly.” That is something Asians do well, he noted.
The couple had noticed that many elderly people in their area lived in nursing homes that were often very depressed places. They grew to have great respect for nurses and others who served these communities.
So they created an award that is given along with a cash gift to nurses who show exceptional service to persons living in nursing homes. They began with the nursing homes in their own area but “my wife and I dream of expanding widely,” said Chang.
PASS IT ON
“I came to this country empty-handed; I achieved with family and business,” he added. “For the rest of my life I want to give back.”
Chang is often invited to speak to school groups and community organizations. He speaks not only of his business ventures, but also his roots.
He tells of the Yalta Conference in 1945 and the resulting impact on his now-4,349-year-old homeland. Like Germany, he says, Japan was to be divided at the end of World War II, “but they cut the wrong country.”
He recalls the start of the Korean War during his youth and expresses hope and belief that his country will one day be reunited.
Chang has been honored in both the U.S. and his native Korea. His work as president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce led to the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1997. Other recipients that year included actress Jane Seymour and baseball hall of famer Mike Piazza.
The greatest experience in Chang’s remarkable life, he said, came unexpectedly and with resistance. His sister — who had converted to Christianity after marriage — came to Atlanta for a missionary conference.
Chang was delighted to be her host in Georgia — picking her up at the airport, sharing meals and taking her to her hotel. But she had other ideas.
“She started trying to make me a Christian,” said Chang, who expressed no interest.
She insisted that he attend one of the meetings and when he refused, she refused to eat. So he placated her my attending one of the Korean worship services.
He described the preaching, singing and crying as “all crazy people.” And the notion that someone who was hit would turn the other cheek to be hit again made no sense to Chang.
“I could not understand,” he confessed, and made no plans to return. But his sister persisted.
On the second day, Chang said he listened more carefully and began to understand that the most important things in life are “love, forgiveness and hope.” On the third day, he professed his faith in Christ.
Putting his life into perspective, he said: “The Korean War created a sense of no hope, but Christianity brought hope.”
Returning to Dalton, Chang made his way to the First Baptist Church where he was baptized by then-pastor Billy Nimmons. The then 60-year-old successful businessman was resurrected to new life.
An avid golfer, Chang tells of taking Nimmons to The Farm, a prestigious golf club near Dalton. On a par-3 hole, Chang hit his tee shot to the green — closer to the pin than his pastor.
So, as customary, Chang marked the placement of his ball to allow Billy to play up, and then put the ball back in place.
However, Chang set his ball several feet further from the hole than where it had landed. Billy told him of his mistake.
But it was no mistake, said Chang.
He confessed: “No, before I was a Christian I cheated about 1 inch each time. Now I’m making up for it.”
Then his face lit up and he added: “But I made the birdie.” NFJ
Story and Photo by John D. Pierce