PROVO, Utah — Amid the pomp and circumstance of BYU's summer commencement exercises Aug. 10, thousands of graduates rose to their feet and applauded Whang Keun Ok.
She had not delivered a graduation address. In fact, she never uttered a word, just bowed to the audience with what friends call characteristic humility. It seemed her lifetime of achievement and service in her native Korea spoke for itself.
BYU recognized Sister Whang, who now lives outside of Seoul, with a Presidential Citation and Medallion "for the value she has placed on education for herself and others and for her tireless efforts to promote human welfare and gospel principles in the lives of children."
As the superintendent of the Songjuk Orphanage and later as the founder of the Tender Apples Orphanage, Sister Whang organized a children's choir that gave dozens of youth a sense of accomplishment and place. She loved the children as a mother. She spent her lifetime serving them, the Church and the Lord.
"Is it possible to say that one person makes a difference?" said BYU President Merrill J. Bateman of the Seventy before presenting the award. "Indeed, it is. One has only to look at Sister Whang to see that a person can influence lives and lift others. In her quiet but determined way she has brought joy and light into the lives of children who otherwise would not have experienced such blessings."
Sister Whang was born in what is now North Korea. Her father died when she was only 6 years old. With her mother and sisters, she moved to a small village in the country. It was there, under an apricot tree, that a young Sister Whang prayed earnestly to God that if she could gain an education she would spend her life in the service of others.
She was able to attend junior high school, working at the same time so she could pay her tuition. Later, after completing her college work, she taught high school for six years before accepting an invitation to study in an exchange program at the University of California at Berkeley.
There she met two Korean BYU students, working in Berkeley for the summer. They invited her to attend BYU. She accepted — ignoring friends and associates who begged her not to go — and there "learned of this Church," Sister Whang recalled during a Church News interview. Its teaching felt right to her. She came to believe in "its true message." She was baptized June 23, 1962, after she returned to Korea.
That year she was also named superintendent of Songjuk Orphanage. Soon she met Stan Bronson.
Stationed in Seoul with the U.S. Army, Brother Bronson, now a member of the White Mesa Branch, Blanding Utah West Stake, wanted to teach the children at the orphanage some songs and help them make a record.
"She thought that would be wonderful and invited me back," Brother Bronson recalled. "I took my guitar on my next visit. I was getting ready to show off, when Sister Whang said, 'Before you sing, the children have prepared something for you.' They started singing these beautiful songs in three-part harmony."
Brother Bronson immediately knew Sister Whang was a "genuine and loving and kind person. Nothing Sister Whang did was for herself. She had not only taught the children to sing, but had dedicated her life to giving them a chance. To make a difference for them personally."
"She would always go home at night because she didn't want to take room they needed," he said. "She would seldom eat there because she didn't want to eat their food."
With Brother Bronson, Sister Whang organized a choir that eventually became known all over Korea. They began to perform on U.S. military bases and even recorded an album. "It wasn't long before we were singing on television and at social events," Brother Bronson recalled.
The choir raised the social status of the orphans, who once told Brother Bronson they were "trash."
Sister Whang also taught the children to work hard and to be honest and thrifty, said her adopted daughter Suzette Jensen, who lives in Orem, Utah. She taught them to value the material things they had.
"She has always been my hero," Sister Jensen said. "She never thinks of herself. She always gives anything she has. She would take off her coat and give it to someone else."
Most important, Sister Jensen said, she taught them to "always put the Church first."
That resolve was tested when some of the girls at the orphanage learned Sister Whang was LDS. Since the orphanage was sponsored by another religion, authorities gave Sister Whang a choice: "They wanted me to leave the Church to stay employed at the orphanage," Sister Whang recalled. "So I left the orphanage. So we started again."
Nine children followed her home; they didn't want to stay at the orphanage without her. Soon more children joined them. Brother Bronson, who had returned to the United States, worked hard to raise enough money to sponsor a new orphanage — the Tender Apples Home.
The girls continued singing — eventually doing missionary work around the country for the Church. Again, the choir appeared on national television. It was featured by Bob Hope. Almost overnight, the children and their "mother" raised the national awareness of the Church.
For almost 20 years, Sister Whang ran Tender Apples Orphanage. She taught her girls the gospel. She placed many of them in LDS homes in the states.
"Today she counts among her children a number who served missions, who married in the temple and who found fulfilling lives both in Korea and abroad," said Elder Bateman. "She succeeded in teaching responsibility and thrift, neatness and order. She also taught by example the joys and values of service."
Brother Bronson recalls following Sister Whang all over Seoul, meeting with the minister of education or the minister of social services — or anyone who could help improve the lives of the girls in her care.
While attending the BYU ceremony and watching as thousands stood to honor Sister Whang, Brother Bronson's mind filled with a flood of memories of the woman who had made such an impact. Instantly he was struck with one overwhelming impression: "They could not create an award or honor that would begin to recognize what this lady has done for the Church, for these children, for her country. They couldn't possibly create an award big enough for Sister Whang."
Brother Bronson then recalled a moment years earlier when he had been meeting with Sister Whang, who never married, in her orphanage office. A little girl came in crying for a mother. Sister Whang held her and comforted her.
"The child said, 'I want a mother,' " Brother Bronson recalled. "Of course Sister Whang was that for her. They loved her like a mother. She definitely loved them like a mother."