Couple says time in Peace Corps strengthened marriage

Elizabeth Davies

For Duane and Sue Wilke, it was quite the honeymoon.

Just young newlyweds, the pair left the world they knew and headed around the globe to work as Peace Corps teachers in Korea. It was the early 1970s. The Vietnam War was raging and a military draft in effect.

“We wanted to travel, help in some way and meet people of different cultures,” Duane said. “Living in Korea gave us many of these opportunities. Learning a different language gives insight into learning a different way of thinking.

“The Korean people are amazing. They value education and teachers, as well as hard work. The respect we received in the schools was incredible.”

But working in Asia, the Wilkes knew, would be an experience unlike any they could fathom. They agreed early on that if their work began to take a toll on their marriage, they would be quick to return home.

As it happened, their time overseas did just the opposite.

“Our years in Korea strengthened our marriage because we experienced Korea together,” said Sue, who has been married to Duane for more than 35 years now. “To this day, we have the gift of reflecting on a shared experience, which was profound.” 

Recently, the Wilkes had the chance to return to South Korea for a reunion with about 40 other Peace Corps volunteers. They spent time in Seoul, then left for their original teaching site in Taegu, the country’s fourth-largest city. Taegu is home to five major universities and is known as a central spot for Korean baseball.

A world with college students and baseball might sound familiar, but Korea in the 1970s was a far cry from American culture. The Wilkes were shocked to see so many arranged marriages, and they struggled to leave behind the American feminist movement in exchange for that society’s treatment of women.

“As a young woman emerging from the cultural changes for American women in the ’60s, I was in painful conflict with the role of women in Korea in the early ’70s,” Sue said.

Back then, everyday life posed new challenges: Korean kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, was served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Classrooms were heated only by the bodies of about 70 students. There were unwritten social rules about when to bow and which words to use.

The Wilkes were struck by a single lesson they learned while in Korea: how very much alike we all are.

“Everyone wants the best for their children,” Duane said. “In a sense, we are all one people.”

Both of the Wilkes returned to the United States to work with children in Rockford. Sue is a developmental specialist working with at-risk newborns at Rockford Health System. Duane is a retired Title 1 coordinator with the Rockford School District who works part time as the school improvement coach at Ellis Arts Academy.

They’ve noticed a striking difference between Korean and American schools over the years.

In Korea, “education is so highly valued by parents and students,” Duane said. “If a child ever got into trouble in a school in Korea, the parent would not think of questioning or arguing with the teachers. Students get homework almost every night and they do it. School days are longer and the school week is longer because classes meet on Saturday.”

Years after they first set foot on Korean soil, the Asian way of life permeates the Wilke home.

They have Asian pottery and artwork displayed throughout the house, and they take their shoes off at the door.

As for eating kimchi?

Well, that’s best left as an occasional meal.

Elizabeth Davies can be reached