This Monday, Saybrugians began the last week of their fall semester on a sad note. Dean McKinley informed us that Wook Choe ’07, a fellow classmate, passed away after a long illness on Nov. 18.
I was neither Wook’s best friend at Yale nor an especially close buddy. We took a course together spring semester last year. Even after that we only spent a few occasional hours catching up in Saybrook’s courtyards. Not an impressive record of a long friendship. And yet I feel a deep sorrow at his passing, and I think I owe it to him to tell you how he touched the life of someone who knew him so little.
Wook’s life was governed by a magnificent philosophy. With stupendous determination, he maintained his interest in academics until the very end. His was not the determination of the pre-med or pre-law student. Nor was his determination a form of bitter rebellion against his long illness. No, Wook’s determination had its roots in a more sublime source — a keenness to understand and apply everything he could learn.
While discussing a course in Hinduism that we both took, Wook did not simply harp about having to study a lot of material for the in-class midterm and final paper. On the other hand, he was far more interested in how the material we were studying worked within the larger context of Hindu life. “Do you meditate?” Wook asked. “Do you think upon the gods and texts we discuss in class while you meditate? Is that what Hinduism is about?”
Here was a student who, in the second week of an introductory course, was asking fundamental questions about the nature of the Hindu religion. These were inquiries that I had not even begun to formulate, despite practicing the religion for two decades. You could simply conclude that I am not a very inquisitive person, and that’s possibly very true. But I think there’s more to it than that. Wook didn’t simply want to get a good grade in this class. Nor even was he satisfied with mastering the material given to him. Wook’s quest was to understand how the stuff he read in class mattered to people in the world.
Wook was also deeply perceptive of and sensitive to others’ sentiments. One day, we met during dinner in Saybrook. He was having a relatively meager meal that happened to include corned beef, lasagna and salad. We chatted for a while, and at the end, Wook left the beef and some ears of corn untouched on his plate. In a rare moment of curiosity, I inquired as to why he wasn’t eating everything. “But the cow is sacred to Hindus, Nikhil,” Wook replied. “And anyway, it was all a multi-level joke. See, I left behind the corn with the corned beef. And, at another level, doing stuff like that is pretty corny, wouldn’t you agree?”
Now, I wouldn’t dream of denying a friend the joy of a hearty non-vegetarian meal. But due to my cultural background, seeing fellow students eat meat is slightly discomforting. Wook, with his deep perception and insightful application of his knowledge about my culture, went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. What is even more wonderful is that he followed this up with his on-the-spot corny comment, which went a long way to help assuage my pangs of guilt at having disrupted his meal.
And so it is that Wook will be remembered as both an exemplary student and a warm individual, fully contributing to the tradition, the company of scholars and the society of friends that George Pierson once described Yale to be.
Nikhil Seshan is a junior in Saybrook College.