As Officer and a Photographer, He Brought Out Best in People
When he was not yet a teenager, Kwang-Ping Hsu saw things no child should have to see.
Charred bodies of fellow Chinese hanging from trees. Frightened adults and children jammed into trucks, trying to escape the Japanese bombing of their homes and towns. His father's departure for a job in the United States while he, his 9-year-old sister and his mother remained behind in post-World War II China until they could emigrate two years later.
Settling in Charlottesville, Virginia, where his father was a professor at the University of Virginia's medical school, young Kwang-Ping Hsu and his sister found themselves the only Asians in their school. Neither spoke a word of English.
“When we first appeared there, we were looked at like we were Martians,” said his sister, Kwang-Yen Fine. “We were assigned one teacher, who would cut out a picture and put it in a little pamphlet next to an English word. That's how they taught us. I think my mother might have put the Chinese word next to it, but I'm not sure. But you know children, they learn fast.”
Those traumas might have turned some people bitter, frightened or racist. But Hsu, who died December 11, 2007, of complications from a brain tumor at age 71, was a cheerful and compassionate man who brought the best out in people, his friends said.
The first Asian graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, he became a captain in the Coast Guard and an accomplished aviator who flew in the Arctic and Antarctic and commanded a post in Hawaii. He flew the Coast Guard's HC-130 aircraft to Beijing in 1986, the first visit by a U.S. military aircraft to China since 1947, the year that Hsu left his homeland. Hsu later commanded Air Station Washington, where unlike the situation at most Coast Guard rescue or patrol bases, the main job was to fly the commandant and other high-level officials where they needed to go.
At the time, budget cuts and changes in priorities forced the removal of one of the two aircraft, and the station's staff had to move from their hangar into shared offices with nonmilitary Federal Aviation Administration personnel.
“He led us through a tremendous amount of upheaval and helped us get through it,” said Vivien S. Crea, one of the young pilots Hsu mentored and who is now a vice admiral, the second-highest officer in the Coast Guard. “He kept us focused, instead of taking it personally and being downtrodden about it. We had to do what we had to do, without missing a beat, without compromising our capabilities.”
Hsu led with enthusiasm and humor, taking his staff to Chinatown and trying to teach them how to order the authentic dishes not on the menu.
Crea turned to him when an unexpected opportunity came along. On the verge of her long-sought goal of becoming aircraft commander of the station's Gulfstream jet, she was offered the chance to interview for the job as the Coast Guard's military aide to President Ronald Reagan.
“He talked me past some of the uncertainties of going into a political environment, and it turned out to be a fork-in-the-road opportunity,” Crea said. “In retrospect, it was a no-brainer . . . and he taught me don't turn down opportunities just because they're not what you expected. It was a lesson in being a good boss.”
Throughout his life, Hsu looked for chances to help people. He became a professional photographer after he retired from the military. He had prostate cancer in 2003 and had recovered until a brain tumor sapped his strength, starting two years ago.
Gary Lloyd, former president of the Maryland Professional Photographers Association, said Hsu showed great concern for his fellow man. “He'd go out of his way, even if it was way inconvenient, to help someone,” Lloyd said. “Ping just brought the best out in people. As sick as he was, he could change people's lives.”
A neighbor who had lost a job he had held for more than 20 years found that Hsu not only dictated a letter of recommendation, but also contacted friends who might hire him. From his bed, Hsu wrote a letter for a caregiver from Sierra Leone, painstakingly explaining why she would make an excellent U.S. citizen.
He met his wife, Rosemary, on a blind date at an Army-Navy football game and married her 45 years ago. Their son, Army Lieutenant Colonel David Hsu, is serving with the Special Forces in Iraq, and their daughter, Cindy Hsu, is a news reporter at WCBS-TV in New York.
His sister, an architect, said the bond she shared with her brother was mostly one of humor.
“We joked around a lot. We'd make fun of ourselves and would poke fun at each other. We'd accuse each other of dropping a chair on each other's head,” Kwang-Yen Fine said, laughing still. “It carried on to our children. Ping thought that people are too serious these days and there's too much political correctness. If people would joke a little more, it would be a better world.”
Kwang-Ping Hsu, 71, a former Coast Guard officer and a professional photographer, died of complications of a brain tumor December 11, 2007, at the Johnson Center at Falcons Landing in Potomac Falls, Virginia.
Captain Hsu served in the Coast Guard for 30 years, becoming a commanding officer at stations from the District to Hawaii. He completed tours at the North Pole and the South Pole. He was the commanding officer at Barbers Point, Hawaii, in 1986 when he flew the first U.S. military aircraft to go to Beijing since 1947. At an aerospace exhibition there, Captain Hsu and his crew provided tours of the U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft at Beijing's Capital Airport and gave a presentation on the advances in air-sea search and rescue techniques used by the Coast Guard.
His last tour was at the Pentagon as the liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War. He retired from the military in 1992.
His second career as a photographer, from his home in Vienna, took him on wedding and architecture shoots. His work appeared in Home & Design magazine.
Captain Hsu was born in the Shantung province of China and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 11. He lived in Charlottesville and in 1962 became the first Asian cadet to graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Rosemary Hsu of Potomac Falls; two children, Army Lieutenant Colonel David Hsu, who is serving in Iraq, and Cindy Hsu of New York; a sister; and three granddaughters.
Captain KWANG-PING HSU, USCG (Ret.) Of Potomac Falls, Virginia, and formerly of Vienna, Virignia, on Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at the Johnson Center in Falcons Landing.
Beloved husband of Rosemary M. Hsu; father of Lieuenqant Colonel David K. Hsu, USA, Special Forces (Christensen) and Cindy K. Hsu; brother of Kwang-Yen Fine; grandfather of Catherine, Meilani and Rosie Hsu.
Memorial service will be held at Andrew Chapel United Methodist Church, 1301 Trap Rd., Vienna, Virginia, on Saturday, December 15 at 2 p.m., followed by a reception in the church fellowship hall.
Funeral services will be held at Fort Myer Memorial Chapel on Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 9 a.m. Interment Arlington National Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions for the Hsu grandchildren's education may be made to the Fidelity Funds, c/o Damien McKenzie, 7600 Leesburg Pike, West Building, Ste. 201, Falls Church, Virginia 22043.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard