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The Nam Family

Nam Center for Korean Studies ribbon cutting ceremony

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 only a 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. In the fall of 2010, 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. A self-proclaimed “Michigan Man,” Elder Nam often sported U-M apparel as he strolled around campus regaling friends and colleagues with his jokes and stories. Elder Nam, 77, died of cancer at his home in Ann Arbor on March 29, 2011 surrounded by his wife Moon-Sook Nam, sons Andrew and Anthony, and their families. Mrs. Nam and her sons continue to be actively involved in Center events and activities.

Three generations of the Nam family together at the U-M Alumni Association's Distinguished Service Award ceremony for Elder Nam.

Sang-Yong Nam's Journey

Born in the South Chung-cheong Province of Korea in 1934, Sang-Yong Nam 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. 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.

Elder Nam's numerous awards include the Distinguished Service Award from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning in 2002, the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor’s Distinguished Service Award in 2009, which was presented to him for conveying a true picture of "Service Above Self," an "Outstanding Alumni Award" from the Seoul National University Alumni Association in the U.S.A, and the U-M Alumni Association's Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2010. He also received a "Certificate of Appreciation" at the Korean American Community of Metro Detroit for extraordinary service to the community and for being a founder of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Michigan.

He was a member of 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. The Nams also support dozens of other organizations in the United States, China, and Korea including: the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, the Korean-American Society of Greater Ann Arbor, the Korean Church of Ann Arbor, the Korean School of Ann Arbor, as well as the Architectural Institute of Korea, the Seoul National University, the Chung-Ang University, and the Pyong-Yang University of Science and Technology in North Korea.

The Nam Family Legacy

Sons Andrew (BSME'88, MBA '95) and Anthony (BS '91) share their parents' educational vision. “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 an interview. As president of the Korean Student Association, Anthony spearheaded a petition campaign that helped launch U-M's Korean Studies Program in 1995. Several years later, through the support of many people at the University and in the Ann Arbor and metro Detroit communities, the Korean Studies Program was established. In July of 2007, a $2.3 million gift from the Nams to the Center for Korean Studies, combined with $2 million in previous contributions, provided the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) with the resources to upgrade the Program from the current designation to the Center for Korean Studies. Today it produces some of the finest scholarship on Korea in the nation. “With his tremendous generosity Elder Nam has created a legacy for many decades,” said Terrence J. McDonald, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “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, former director of the Nam Center and 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.”

Elder Nam's contributions to the center continue to be celebrated with the Sang-Yong Nam Award and the Sang-Yong Nam Memorial Lecture.