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Missouri grandma died from Covid: 'She was the mouse that could fight the lion'

Han Sim Hildebrand, a Korean immigrant who overcame a childhood of hunger to grow a thriving vegetable business in Missouri, is a casualty of Covid-19.
Image: Han Sam Hildebrand
Han Sim Hildebrand.Courtesy Chris Peters

Right up to the evening of Nov. 29, when Han Sim Hildebrand died, her family felt certain she was going to beat Covid-19 and make her way back home.

The 71-year-old Korean immigrant, who had come from an impoverished childhood to grow a thriving vegetable business in Columbia, Missouri, had seemed to be winning her nearly two-month battle with the virus. Having been weaned off a ventilator and put on a less intrusive oxygen flow, Han Sim had seemed in good spirits when her husband, Jim Hildebrand, visited several hours before he received the phone call that his wife had gone into cardiac arrest.

"Within a couple of days (of being off the ventilator), she was awake, waving at us, smiling — it was a miracle," her son, Chris Peters, an active duty naval officer, said. "Even the nurses said, 'She's like a Houdini, we can't believe how fast she's come back.'

"It seemed like we had been through the darkest part."

Persevering through the darkest parts of life, after all, had been what Chris' mom has been doing since an early age. Her family on both sides of the Pacific drew strength from her inspiration.

"Sim was 4 (feet), 11 (inches) and she's the mouse that could fight the lion," Jim, who was married to her for 32 years, said. "I mean I'm 6 (feet), 2 (inches) and she always kept me under control."

Hildebrand and her son Chris Peters during one of his leaves from the Navy.Courtesy Chris Peters

Born Jan. 7, 1949, Han Sim Kim was raised in a fishing village on the island of Dura-Ri off the southern tip of South Korea; the second eldest child in an impoverished family that included two brothers and four sisters.

Years later, she would tell Jim that cooking fires would require scrounging for pine needles for kindling — and there often wasn't much to cook beyond the yams her family grew.

"My mom told me stories about just suffering from hunger when she was very young, not being able to sleep when she was hungry," Chris said. "She was sick a lot. She's only 4 (feet), 11 (inches), so she didn't grow very much."

At the age of 20, Han Sim married an American military service member, and left her family behind to move to the other side of the world, where she would settle in Missouri. Until then, the two-hour boat ride from her island to the nearest port city, Yoesu, seemed far away.

"It was typical Sim," Jim said. "She had to brave a lot of things, but she went ahead and braved them."

"Her English was not good at first," her son said. "It's not like there's a strong Korean community in northwest Missouri. She was probably the only Korean in a pretty wide radius. But she saw this as an opportunity for a better life."

Han Sim's first marriage didn't last, but the couple had a daughter, Sharon Adhikary, and a second marriage produced her son, Chris. But by the time she married Jim, her third husband, she had carved out a life of her own in the American Midwest.

The couple met in a nightclub when she sent him a drink - setting the tone early for a marriage that would have reached its 33rd anniversary May 10.

While they worked other day jobs — Han Sim's included stints in factories and nursing homes — their shared passion became tending their vegetable patch, dubbed "The Garden."

"Both of us were raised on farms and so we kind of had it in our blood — even though she swore she would never farm again," Jim said.

Han Sam Hildebrand, right, sold vegetables at the winter Columbia farmers market in Missouri — including some Chinese cabbage, turnip greens, radishes and hot peppers.Courtesy Chris Peters

By 2010, The Garden took up three quarters of the couple's two-acre homestead, producing 12 tons of vegetables a summer and enough of an income to become a full-time career.

The Hildebrands became staples at the Columbia Farmers Market, near the University of Missouri, where they stood out for their eclectic wares. They had tomatoes, sure, but also Korean turnips and Chinese cabbage. What they didn't sell, they donated to a local food bank.

When Han Sim wasn't kneeling in a field, she could be found doing so in a pew. A devoted attendee of the Columbia Korean Baptist Church, she brought her smile and dishes of Korean food to services and meetings three times a week as a deaconess.

"She's always smiling, lots of smiles, always joyful," Sho-Yeong Lee, the wife of the church's pastor and a close friend, said. "She brought nice good Korean food all the time.

"She made everyone feel so comfortable. It’s a big loss for our church."

Hildebrand with her daughter, Sharon, sightsee in Yosu, South Korea.Courtesy Chris Peters

Han Sim also never lost her connection to her roots, traveling back with her own children to visit her surviving brother and four sisters in Korea every two or three years. She also never lost the memory of that difficult childhood.

Chris said one of his favorite memories was watching his mom do a little dance of joy when she tasted something worthy of being pronounced, "mash-isso,” Korean for delicious. Even better than eating, though, was cooking for others, including for her beloved granddaughters, Laura and Hanna.

Nothing much ever slowed her down until the severe back pain that drove her to the emergency room first Oct. 14, and again three days later, and turned out to be a symptom of something worse.

"She was very vivacious, she always made everybody feel loved and she loved everyone," Jim said of his wife. "She always had a big smile on her face. When she met somebody, she always was nice to them. I've never seen her have a cross word with anybody.

"She just loved life."