Editor’s Note: This story originally published on April 20, 2020. It has been updated with an additional account from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
Yumi Hogan, Maryland’s first lady, helped her husband procure half a million coronavirus test kits from her native South Korea as the state faced burgeoning cases in April.
The Trump administration, Larry Hogan wrote in a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post Thursday, “bungled” early testing efforts, with “constant heckling” from President Donald Trump before he told governors that states were responsible for their own testing.
“It was hopeless, waiting around for him (Trump). Governors were being told that we were on our own. It was sink or swim. And if I didn’t do something dramatic, we simply would not come close to having enough tests in Maryland. Luckily, I had a special ally on my side: Yumi Hogan,” Hogan wrote.
His wife, he wrote, was “almost a celebrity” in South Korea, and “made a personal plea in Korean” on a call with her husband and South Korean Ambassador to the US Lee Soo Hyuk in late March, setting in motion an unprecedented effort to provide Maryland with desperately needed testing supplies.
Maryland’s first lady was born in South Korea and became a US citizen in 1994. She not only used her native language to help secure the tests but also helped negotiate the deal.
“We convened countless calls, nearly every night, sometimes it seemed like all night,” said Hogan of the 22 days he and the first lady worked in conjunction with the Korean government to land the mother lode of hard-to-come-by coronavirus test kits.
On April 18, both Hogans were on the tarmac at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, greeting a chartered 777 Korean Air plane with no passengers aboard. Inside were enough test kits from Korea’s LabGenomics for Maryland to perform 500,000 tests.
Hogan described that moment, writing: ” ‘Congratulations, honey,’ I told Yumi as the pilot turned off the engines. ‘You helped save a lot of lives.’ “
“The administration made it clear over and over again they want the states to take the lead, and we have to go out and do it ourselves, and that’s exactly what we did,” Hogan said at an April 20 news conference, his wife in a pink coat, silk scarf tied around her shoulders and a blue face mask, standing to the side of the podium.
Hogan dubbed the test kit mission “Operation Enduring Friendship,” relying heavily on the bond he and his wife had established with South Korean Ambassador to the US Lee Soo Hyuk.
“She truly is a champion of Operation Enduring Friendship,” said Hogan.
However, Yumi Hogan is not a professional diplomat, or a politician or someone proficient in the intricacies of scientific approvals needed by numerous government agencies for the test kits to be used in the United States – all of which were secured. She is an artist, an abstract painter whose work is typically centered on nature and is done on hanji, paper made from native Korean trees. Her art is actually how she met Hogan, 20 years ago, at an art show, where he was more interested in the artist than her work. They married in 2004, in a ceremony that included traditional Korean elements.
She is proud of her South Korean heritage, and, Larry Hogan wrote in the Washington Post op-ed, he was deeply honored himself when South Korean President Moon Jae-in referred to him as “the son-in-law of the Korean people.”
In the op-ed, Hogan outlined a speech from Trump at a private governors retreat dinner in early February that he called “jarring.”
“The South Koreans were ‘terrible people,’ he (Trump) said, and he didn’t know why the United States had been protecting them all these years. ‘They don’t pay us,’ Trump complained. Yumi was sitting there as the President hurled insults at her birthplace. I could tell she was hurt and upset. I know she wanted to walk out. But she sat there politely and silently,” Hogan wrote.
From Korea to Maryland
The stately, brick Maryland governor’s mansion in Annapolis is a long way from Jeonnam, Korea, the rural countryside where then-Yumi Kim spent her childhood, one of eight children, on her parents’ chicken farm. She was young when she married her first husband, and the two moved to America. She had three daughters before divorcing and moving with the girls to Maryland, in search of a strong school district and a place to practice her art and teach.
When she met Hogan, he was not only a confirmed bachelor but also a wealthy businessman with his own real estate development company. Though politically passionate, Hogan wasn’t a much of a career politician, which made his victory after a grueling 2014 governor’s race something of a surprise.
Yumi Hogan served as a helpful campaigner, and when her husband won, she became the first Asian American first lady in Maryland and the first Korean American first lady in any state in America’s history. When she moved with her husband into the governor’s mansion, much was made in the press about her special kimchi refrigerator, which she has used many times, cooking meals for guests and events.
Life as Maryland’s first lady
Her tenure as first lady took an unpredictable turn just five months after Hogan’s inauguration, when he was diagnosed with late-stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Yumi Hogan became caretaker and unofficial nurse, helping the governor through grueling chemotherapy treatments and supporting him at home while as he recovered.
A year after his diagnosis, Hogan was cancer-free, but his illness had an impact on Yumi Hogan’s initiatives. Her projects as first lady shifted, as she devoted time to discussing and sharing the benefits of art therapy, as well as teaching art to cancer patients. Her own work also reflected the couple’s personal struggles. A 2016 gallery showing included paintings inspired by Larry Hogan’s health.
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“(They) also depict the sudden change that affected my life. After my husband was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer, I began to use more colors and lines,” she told The Baltimore Sun at the time. “It is my intent to make people feel and understand the unpredictable breath of nature though my works.”
But since March 28, the start of Operation Enduring Friendship, Hogan’s brushes have come second to her determination to use her understanding and knowledge of Korea, its people, its language, its protocol, in an effort to get Covid-19 tests for the state she serves as first lady.