When Brian Aniki walked into a gym at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for his first taekwondo practice, he noticed something special about the older student who was leading it.
“He was 6-foot something and he just looked so calm and collected — an absolutely stoic leader,” Aniki recalled. “I thought, ‘This is a guy I can learn from.’”
Aniki wasn’t the only one impressed by the team leader, Kyu Cho, who became a close friend and mentor. Cho was wise and nurturing beyond his years, an elite martial artist who also excelled in the classroom, according to multiple friends and former team members.
After college, Cho went to law school, got married and returned to his native Texas, where he and his wife, Cindy Cho, had two children: William, now 6, and James, who would be 3.
Aniki still remembers the excitement in Cho’s voice as he described William’s early milestones when the old college friends reconnected some years ago.
“He loved being a dad,” Aniki said.
William no longer has his father. Or his mother. Or his younger brother.
All three were killed over the weekend in the mass shooting at the Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, Texas, about 25 miles north of Dallas. William was wounded in the attack, which claimed the lives of eight people before the heavily armed gunman was shot dead.
The killing of the couple and their youngest son has led to an outpouring of grief from their church community near Dallas, where they lived, and across the nation.
A GoFundMe page set up for William had raised nearly $1.5 million by Tuesday afternoon.
Cho’s wife, Cindy, was a dentist who graduated from the University of Texas Health San Antonio School of Dentistry in 2013. She was working at Thrive Dental and Orthodontics in Richardson. She was 35.
“Our whole team loved her very much, and we are absolutely heartbroken,” the company said in a Facebook post that also described her as “the sweetest, most beautiful soul with the kindest heart.”
“She was an outstanding dentist, mother, wife, daughter, friend, and faithful woman of God,” the company said.
Cho graduated from UMass-Amherst in 2007 with a degree in political science, according to a school spokesman. He went on to law school at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida, graduating in 2010.
At the time of his death, Cho, 37, was working at the law firm Porter Legal Group, in Richardson. He represented clients in multiple areas of law but he felt most passionate about immigration cases, the firm said.
“Although Kyu has only been with our firm for a year, it was immediately apparent that he is one of the most thoughtful, caring and considerate people we have ever had the pleasure to know and work alongside,” Porter Legal said on its Facebook page.
Cho’s college friends were still grappling with a mix of shock and anger three days after the killing.
“I might have joined a sorority to feel the friendship of a family, but looking back I got so much of that with my taekwondo team, and so much of that was because of Kyu,” Lauren Anders Brown wrote in a personal article.
“He was the kind of friend you could not see for 16 years but if you bumped into him on the street you’d pick up right where you left off,” she wrote. “I’ll never know what it’s like to bump into Kyu on the street, because a hateful person and an automatic weapon made that impossible last weekend.”
Ray Mak Hon Kit, a close friend who also met Kyu in college, recalled Cho springing into action when he came down with the flu one day.
“Kyu took me out for dinner telling me that some Korean food would make me feel better,” Hon Kit said. “He then introduced me to a Korean dish called Sundubu Jjigae, which means tofu stew. I recovered the very next day.”
Hon Kit was traveling in South Korea in the days leading up to the shooting and updating Cho by text. Then the exchange abruptly ended.
“I told him I’m in his home country. He told me to have a great time, enjoy myself and have lots of good food,” he said. “I told him I’m in a location pretty far from Seoul central and there’s nothing there. Our conversation ended there.”
The morning after the shooting, Hon Kit’s phone was filled with messages from their former taekwondo teammates who were mourning the loss of their friend.
“Truly devastated,” he said. “I cried in the subway.”
Another college friend, Robert Luckhardt, said Cho was a natural leader who was far more mature than most people their age. He also had an infectious energy, according to Luckhardt.
“I don’t think I ever saw him not smiling,” Luckhardt added. “He just had this endless positivity, and I always felt like he put other people before himself.”
Grace Ghang, 38, went to law school with Cho at Ave Maria School of Law, where they were among only a few Asians.
“We would talk and joke around in Korean sometimes and there was just that instant connection as soon as we were introduced,” she said.
The pair stayed in touch after they graduated. When they last spoke in late 2021, they talked about getting their kids together for a playdate as soon as they could.
“We concluded our messaging by saying we would love to get together sometime since both of us now live in Texas, and I really was planning on trying to make a trip sometime to Dallas to try and catch up with him,” she said. “But now that opportunity is lost.”