International President Dr. Jung-Yul Choi reveals a life that shaped him to serve.

A man becomes a Lion

When International President Dr. Jung-Yul Choi was a young businessman, he helped a milk boy who had spilled his day's deliveries.

The boy asked how he would pay Dr. Choi back. “You don’t need to pay me back directly,” Dr. Choi told him. “You work hard, make more money, and then when you encounter someone in a crisis, you pay him back. Not me.”

People often talk of the day they joined Lions and the moment when they became a Lion. It’s recognizing the difference between being a member and belonging. The difference between something you do and someone you are.

“That is my moment,” says Dr. Choi. “I started thinking, ‘serving, it’s so important. It makes me so happy.’”

Don’t be ordinary

Dr. Choi wasn’t always in a position to make a difference the way he did for that young boy. He grew up in the port city of Busan, in the Republic of Korea. His father passed away before he was one year old, and his mother struggled to support him and his three sisters. World War II was raging and Korea was occupied by Japan. When World War II ended, the Korean War followed quickly on its heels. “It was difficult,” says Dr. Choi. “We were hungry. As a country, we were suffering.”

His mother instilled in him the belief that if he worked harder than ordinary people, he could become successful. He could become extraordinary.

Love at first sight

On his way to becoming extraordinary, a young Dr. Choi was walking across campus when he passed a girl he had never seen before. “At first I just passed her by,” he says. “But then I backed up. I thought, ‘I really like her.’ So I said, ‘Hey.’” She agreed to a cup of coffee and it was after that first date that Dr. Choi told her he would marry her.

She wasn’t so sure.

“She thinks I am a crazy man,” he says. But five years later they married.

After decades of marriage, their bond is still strong. “She’s the most beautiful girl, still today,” he says.

Work harder. Study harder

As a young man Dr. Choi made it his goal to become financially successful so that his family wouldn’t struggle again.

He studied horticulture in college, but his real break came from the proficiency he’d gained in English. “At the time, the U.S. Military had 40,000 troops in Korea,” says Dr. Choi. “So, they needed interpreters.”

When he retired from the Army his English skills made him an attractive candidate for many international companies. After just a year and half at an export company, he decided to start his own business.

It was 1973 and at the time, Busan was exporting 85% of the world’s athletic shoes. Dr. Choi became one of the main exporters. And after a time, he achieved his goal of financial success.

Facing a new challenge

What would he do for the rest of his life?

Dr. Choi spent many years serving in various capacities. He was the vice president of his college alumni association and spent more than 12 years as director of the sports association bureau, which oversees amateur sports in Korea. Dr. Choi and his wife, Seong-Bok Yang, are avid golfers.

Though it wasn’t customary for women in Korea to play at the time, Dr. Choi enjoyed it so much that he bought his wife a set of clubs for her 40th birthday. She soon became much better than him. “She beats me, she’s so good,” says Dr. Choi.

But eventually, everything took a backseat to Lions.

Serving as a kind of religion

Dr. Choi remembers his club helping an orphanage many years ago. They visited the small, isolated island where it was located and spoke with the children and the people running the facility. They saw that they were in need of sporting equipment and other items to give the children ways to learn and play and grow.

The club organized a large equipment and toy drive. “We asked our members to bring the things their children or grandchildren no longer played with. We told them soccer ball, volley ball, guitar—whatever they were not using, bring it!”

The children at the orphanage were very happy with the gifts and the Busan club began holding monthly meetings in the newly stocked library. The Lions played soccer with the children. Their wives made chicken ginseng soup.

“I remember, it was a very meaningful service project for me,” says Dr. Choi.

When Korea was struggling as a nation Dr. Choi remembers receiving aid packages of corn and milk powders from the U.S and other countries. “We were served when we were so hungry,” he says. “Now it’s our turn to give back.”

Today, his work with Lions is his life. “I don’t have a religion,” he says. “Being a Lion is my religion.”