My father, Dr. James S. C. Chao; sisters: Jeanette, May, Christine, Grace, Angela; the rest of our family, and I want to thank you so much—especially those who have traveled so far—for coming and helping us celebrate the life and legacy of our beloved mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao.
My mother is a modest and humble person who never wanted to trouble anyone. We did not notify many people formally but the volume of condolence wishes have been so spontaneous, heartfelt, and overwhelming. We are very touched.
Mother went home to the Lord a week ago last Thursday, after a heroic seven-year battle with lymphoma. In fact, her initial diagnosis came on the same day that the President announced my nomination as the Secretary of Labor. Our mother confronted this struggle as she did every challenge in her life—with courage, selfless concern for others, and a serenity that came from the belief that God had a purpose for her in life.
She and my father are part of a generation that experienced much suffering, but achieved great things. Mother and Father, like so many Chinese in the 20th century, endured the terror of foreign invasions, the chaos of domestic turmoil, and the heartbreak of dislocations in their native land. Despite all the terrible things they saw, they refused to be defeated by them and remained positive and optimistic their entire life.
Mother’s courage in the face of great suffering was the product of a strong faith, rooted in a deep love for the Lord, her husband and her family. It gave her the strength to be a pioneer for women of her generation, and to leave a legacy that extends far beyond her immediate family.
Mother was ahead of her time even as a young woman, when she saw the promise of her future husband, James S. C. Chao, long before others, and pledged her love and her life to him unconditionally. Her American name, Ruth, which was given to her by a missionary, is very appropriate because—as the Biblical Ruth promised in Chapter 1:16—“whither thou goest, I will go.’’
For my father’s part, her graceful bearing, dignity, cultured upbringing and beauty ensured that his heart was hers forever. As Proverbs 31:10-12 say, “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize. She brings him good ….. all the days of her life.’’
Mother’s virtuous character was the foundation of our family and all that we have been able to achieve. Her loving, steady leadership at home alleviated all of Father’s worries and enabled him to travel far and wide to seek opportunities to better life for the family. Mother was seven months pregnant with my sister, May, when Father left to go to America. During their three long years of separation, they were faithful to one another, to God and to every promise that they made.
Three years later, Mother risked everything, leaving her family and all that was familiar behind to join him, taking another great leap of faith. Moving to America may seem more commonplace now, but back then it was a courageous and bold step, especially because America was not nearly as ethnically diverse as it is today. Mother was a pioneer who led the way for those who came afterwards, and their contributions helped our country grow in the diversity and strength that makes it the envy of the world today.
Resettled in America, Mother paved the way for her daughters’ successes by nurturing us physically and imbuing us with thinking and attitudes that were, again, ahead of their time. Mother always believed that women could be just as valued and accomplished as men. She also believed that the most important adornments for a woman were virtue, intellect and achievement. In fact, at the age of 51, she went back to school to St. John’s University to earn a master’s degree in Asian literature and history. She taught us to lead virtuous lives by her own example of being virtuous in everything she did and said. She is our model of dignity, propriety and purity of heart.
Mother gave expression to her strong faith and love not only through the example she set for us, but in giving herself wholeheartedly to her church and to her community. She touched the lives of many outside our family through her volunteer work in the church and in the community, often done quietly and without fanfare.
Mother’s life spanned two worlds—Asia and America—and she played a role in building bridges of understanding between them. She never forgot where she came from, establishing several charitable foundations with Father that are helping young people in Asia and America access higher education and opportunity. She has planted thousands of seeds throughout her life that will blossom over time and produce many improvements in our world in the future.
As Mother faced the final challenge of her life, she never complained even though the ravages of the illness ensured that she was never without pain. Her only thoughts and words were always expressions of concern for others. When I would accompany her in the hospital, she would look quizzically at me and ask, “Shouldn’t you be at work? The people and the country are depending on you.’’
During her illness, my parents switched roles. Mother had taken care of Father throughout her life. Now, he took care of her, ferociously and protectively monitoring every detail of her care at every stage. So much so that one of the doctors joked that my father was practicing medicine without a license. Throughout this difficult time, the devotion of my parents to one another was like a shining beacon, drawing everyone to them with its intensity and warmth.
Nearly half a century ago, Father came to America to prepare a place for his young wife and their children. Now, Mother has gone to prepare a place for him and for us—an everlasting home with the Lord that will never end and where every tear will be wiped away. We are consoled by the knowledge that we will see Mother again with her usual smile, healthy and strong.
Until then, Mother is with us every day in our hearts and in our lives as an enduring inspiration, spurring us forward to contribute to society and make a difference in this world.