Oldest Alumnus Revisits His Korean Experience
Victor Wellington Peters ’24, USC’s oldest alumnus, returned to his alma mater in mid-November for a special tour of the USC Libraries’ Korean Heritage Library.
In 2006, Peters donated letters from his time as a missionary in Japanese-occupied Korea to the USC Libraries. Recently processed and digitized, most of The Rev. V. W. Peters Collection is now accessible to scholars around the world through the USC Digital Library.
“Collections like this are very important to scholars of Korea because they provide an unfiltered, honest glimpse of the otherwise rarely seen Korean past,” said Joy Kim, curator of the USC Korean Heritage Library. “At that time a colony of Japan, Korea was practically unknown to the Western world, so these firsthand accounts are rare snapshots of that historic period.”
At 108, Peters is a retired pastor, teacher and artist who holds the dual distinction of being USC’s oldest living alumnus and a member of the first class to attend UCLA.
In 1919, Peters enrolled at the newly created southern branch of the University of California, which later became UCLA. In its first few years, the new campus only offered a two-year undergraduate course, as degrees were only granted at the university’s Berkeley campus.
After completing his studies at UCLA, Peters attended USC, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1924. He went on to earn a doctorate in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
Upon graduation, Peters left the United States to serve as a Methodist missionary in Seoul, Korea, where he would remain for 13 years.
During his time in Korea, Peters kept in touch with his family in California through weekly letters and postcards. The correspondences were personal in nature, chronicling Peters’ day-to-day life as a missionary. But they also detailed the nation’s history, customs and physical environment.
In his first letter, which totaled eight typewritten pages, Peters noted the lasting effects of a “Japanese Napoleon [Toyotomi Hideyoshi] of three centuries ago who set out to conquer the world and got as far as Korea” during the Imjin War of 1592-98. “The country has never recovered,” he wrote.
Still, Peters was enchanted by his host country. “All day we were surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges, reminding me so much of California,” he wrote. “Why artists have never exploited the scenery here I cannot tell. Nothing could be more appealing than a Korean village, the little thatched-roof houses clumped and looking for all the world like mushrooms.”
The letters also offered a glimpse into the changing cultural environment in Korea, specifically how Western culture was beginning to influence the country largely through the presence of foreign missionaries.
In a letter dated Sept. 23, 1928, Peters shares his experience playing music for a Korean audience, revealing that for much of the native population, his guitar was the first they had ever seen: “Besides satisfying my craving for music, it seems to furnish a good deal of entertainment … no one has seen one before.”
In addition to missionary work, Peters also met his wife, Ruth (born Hahn Heung Bok), in Korea. The Peters family believes their marriage in 1938 was the first performed in Korea between an American and a Korean.
Peters eventually left Korea in 1941 and the correspondences he had sent to his parents largely were forgotten. That is, until five years ago, when Peters’ eldest daughter, Grace Peters Alexander, discovered a box filled with letters and souvenirs in the family garage.
“Just to think about finding such a treasure gives me chills,” said Alexander, who accompanied Peters on the tour. “It’s wonderful to know that it’s been archived and preserved.”
Soon after the archive’s discovery, the family donated the contents to USC’s Korean Heritage Library, which is part of the East Asian Library. Unique among East Asian libraries in North America, USC’s East Asian Library has built a particularly strong suite of Korean-studies resources. More than 40 percent of the library’s holdings pertain to Korea, compared to 5 to 10 percent in other libraries.
During his tour of the Korean Heritage Library, Peters examined maps from The David Lee Collection, part of the larger Sea of Korea Map Collection, which documents how Western cartographers designated the body of water between Japan and Korea. Peters leafed through a reference book of Korean landmarks, recognizing some places his travels and missionary work had taken him.
Following his visit to the East Asian Library, Peters toured the USC campus. Although he remembered attending classes at the Alumni House and Bovard Hall, most of the campus’ oldest buildings, including Mudd Hall and Doheny Memorial Library, had not been built when he was a student.
After the tour, Peters presented Kim with a hand-illustrated copy of Peters’ Progress, a history of his family dating back to 55 BCE.
Peters’ collection is an exceptionally detailed personal history that, like the items he saw on his tour, allows him to revisit the land he left nearly 70 years ago. Now, as one of the latest additions to the USC Korean Heritage Library, his letters also will serve as an important scholarly resource, preserving a perspective on Korean history that otherwise might be lost.
To learn more about how the USC Libraries support scholarship on East Asian subjects, visit www.usc.edu/libraries/locations/east_asian/ or visit the library on the first floor of Doheny Memorial Library.