By Maryanne George and Kristy Demas
Elder Sang-Yong Nam arrived at the University of Michigan from Korea in 1964, with only $4 in his pocket, as a graduate student in the College of Architecture and Design. He found few books about Korea in the U-M library and a lack of Korean art in the U-M Museum of Art. It became his dream to correct the disparity and make U-M a premier center for Korean Studies.
Over the years Elder Nam, president and CEO of Nam Building Management Co. in Ann Arbor, became the largest benefactor of the Nam Center for Korean Studies at the International Institute, pledging more than $4 million and making it one of the top programs in the country. Last fall the center was named in his honor.
He also gave generously to the Asia Library, the U-M Museum of Art and the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He was a member of the U-M Alumni Association and received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award, in 2010.
Elder Nam, 77, died of cancer at his home in Ann Arbor on March 29, surrounded by his wife Moon-Sook Nam, sons Andrew and Anthony and their families.
Terrence J. McDonald, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, said Elder Nam has created a lasting legacy.
“With his tremendous generosity Elder Nam has created a legacy for many decades,” McDonald said. “His gifts will enable us to recruit world class scholars, provide unparalleled learning opportunities and fund innovative research that will contribute to new scholarship on Korea.’’
Nojin Kwak, director of the Nam Center and an associate professor of Communication Studies, said Elder Nam’s presence at the center will be greatly missed.
“For all of us at the center this loss is quite personal,” Kwak said. “We will miss our supporter, partner and friend. We shared our dreams, challenges and laughter together as a family. His life and legacy will forever be cherished and celebrated in our memories.”
Born in the South Chung-cheong Province of Korea in 1934, he endured many hardships. As a high school student during the Korean War, he witnessed his father’s abduction, leaving him and his older brother to provide for their six siblings. After graduating with a degree in architectural engineering from the Seoul National University, he worked for the United States Operations Mission to Korea, which led him to Michigan.
He arrived in Ann Arbor on a Greyhound bus with $4 in his pocket. In 1966 he graduated from the then College of Architecture & Urban Planning with a Master’s Degree in City Planning. After graduation he worked as a senior planner for the then Washtenaw County Metropolitan Planning Commission for 13 years. In 1974 he and his wife founded the Nam Building Company, purchasing their first property, a 20-unit apartment building.
As the Nams built their real-estate company, they also worked to build support for a U-M Korean Studies Program. “I asked my sons, Andrew and Anthony, to attend U-M so that they would share my vision for Korean studies and carry on my philanthropy and mission,” Elder Nam said during a recent interview.
Both sons attended U-M and were active in the Korean Student Association. In 1995 the Korean Studies Program was established and was expanded to a center in 2007, as a result of continuous fundraising and support by Elder Nam.
A self-proclaimed “Michigan Man,” he often sported U-M apparel as he strolled around campus regaling friends and colleagues with his jokes and stories.
He was a member of the Korean Church of Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Rotary Club, the U-M Haven Presidential Society and director of the Nam Family Foundation. He served as an adviser to The National Unification Advisory Council and as an adjunct professor at Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China.
His numerous awards include the Distinguished Service Award from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning in 2002 and the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor’s Distinguished Service Award in 2009.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Nam Center for Korean Studies, University of Michigan, 1080 S. University Ave., Suite 4661 Ann Arbor, MI 48109; or the Korean Church of Ann Arbor, Jesus Tsunami Fund, 3301 Creek Drive Ann Arbor, MI 48108.