SEOUL — Former Seoul American High School music teacher and DODEA 2005 Teacher of the Year Irene Lee died Thursday after battling a serious, unspecified medical condition, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity Pacific.
Lee, a native of De Smet, S.D., retired in June after a 41-year teaching career.
“Irene seemed to know every single student, their families and what they were going through,” Kubasaki High School teacher Mark Hannold said, according to a DODEA statement. “She genuinely cared for them. That takes great emotional capacity. Everybody was family to her, and she inspired trust.”
Lee moved to Seoul in 1983 after teaching elementary school in Stuttgart, Germany, according to a 2004 Stars and Stripes article.
The bands and orchestra instructor received numerous awards during her career. She was named District Teacher of the Year in 1996, Phi Delta Kappa Educator of the Year in 2002 and Jaycees Outstanding Young Educator of the Year in 1971 in Sisseton, S.D.
However, she told Stripes in 2004 she was most proud of being recognized multiple times in “Who’s Who Among American Teachers,” in which top-ranked collegiate students submit names of teachers who made a difference in their lives.
“I have great students who are willing to work with me,” said Lee, who also worked with the Korean American Youth Symphony Orchestra during her years in Seoul.
She said in 2004 she planned to teach even after she was eligible for retirement.
“When it starts to feel like work, I’ll quit. Music is fun.”
The DODEA statement quoted former student Shasta Underwood as saying Lee was “a huge part of shaping my teenage years.”
“Ms. Lee taught me a love of music, a confidence in myself, and that there is always room to love more,” Underwood said. “More than a simple band director, she taught us to be better human beings.”
Lee is survived by her husband, Suk Jo, and their son, Daniel. Information about memorial arrangements was not immediately available.