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[Editorial] Chey’s legacy

Late SK chairman remembered for exemplary social contributions

Business magnates often have a considerable impact not only in the business world, but on society as well.

Look at people like Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Many people stand in awe of them as much for their creativity and innovation as for the wealth they created and amassed.

Then think about Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, who is as well-known for his philanthropy as for his success as the creator and leader of the software juggernaut. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the tech guru engages in extensive philanthropic endeavors that include fighting diseases like tuberculosis, polio and malaria, promoting agricultural production and helping poor children.

In Korea, there are also business magnates who have made an impact beyond their business empires, such as the late SK Group Chairman Chey Jong-hyon, who passed away 20 years ago this month. SK plans to hold an event in memory of him Friday.

Chey led SK -- formerly named Sunkyong -- from 1973 to 1998. He is credited for transforming a textile company into a conglomerate encompassing petrochemicals and information technology industries. Furthermore, some of the social services programs and philanthropic endeavors that he initiated still carry significance.

One of the most outstanding legacies left by the late chairman is the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies. The scholarship foundation was founded in 1974 on the basis of private donations made by Chey, who believed in the importance of developing human capital.

Over the past 44 years, the foundation has provided financial aid to about 3,700 students, and 740 of them have earned doctoral degrees from prestigious foreign institutions of higher learning. About 80 percent of the Ph.D. holders became university professors.

What distinguishes the KFAS from other scholarship foundations -- besides its generous financing of tuitions and living allowances -- is that no conditions are attached.

Chey even called on the foundation and SK officials not to press students to work for SK after their studies.

Another brainchild of Chey’s passion for education is the long-running, popular TV show “Janghak (Scholarship) Quiz,” a quiz contest for high school students.

SK has been sponsoring the weekly quiz show since 1973. It has provided scholarships to about 2,200 champions. In 2000, SK began sponsoring a similar student quiz show in China.

Chey was also a pioneer in forestation. Starting with Gwangdeoksan in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, in 1972, Chey laid the basis for the development of four forests in central parts of the country.

Now containing 3.3 million trees, the combined size of the forests amounts to 4,100 hectares, 14 times the size of Yeouido in Seoul. In addition, the timber harvested from the forestlands at a rotational interval of 30 years provides additional sources of income for scholarships.

The late chairman, who died of lung cancer, is credited for promoting cremation. His will had strong repercussions because at the time, about 80 percent of Koreans -- especially wealthy people and members of the upper class -- opted to be buried.

Chey’s case, which was widely reported in the media, acted as a catalyst for changing the perception of cremation.

The cremation rate went up to 30 percent in the following year, and now stands at 82 percent. In line with his will, SK donated a crematorium to Sejong City in 2010.

The late Chey certainly is not the only Korean tycoon who left a lasting legacy outside of the business realm. But his passion for providing quality education for the nation’s brightest students and preserving nature through tree-planting and cremation has set a good example.