Spotlight on Dr. Somerville: A South Korean Childhood

Written by Chandler Ryd

As many students already know, Dr. Somerville loves storytelling. Yes, as an English professor, he has a vested interest in telling stories—fictional or not—but in almost every class, he seems to sneak in just one more anecdote about his past. He certainly has had an interesting life.

Dr. John Somerville grew up in South Korea, raised by two American missionaries. He learned about America through the limited television channels streaming American cartoons and sitcoms, and through American magazines and newspapers shipped across the Pacific. He still listens to music he first heard on GI radio stations. His home was an enclosed missionary compound that replicated American suburban life in the heart of a foreign land.

As a child, Dr. Somerville loved to play army.

“For birthdays and Christmas my parents would give me military gear—not weapons—but they could buy it on the black market. I wasn’t just playing soldier. I could dress like a soldier,” Somerville said. “Since we were close to the capitol building and near a couple of universities, there was lots of military activity to watch to whet my childish imagination.” He recalled seeing combat-ready soldiers every ten yards, eyeing passing cars from the sidewalk, as his parents drove him to school on the morning after a military coup.

The unrest in South Korea, however, did not stop at the country’s borders. The very real threat of attack from North Korea held South Korea—and young John Somerville—in constant vigil.

In high school, while spending an evening on the beach with his friends, Dr. Somerville heard thunderous gunfire across the water. The next morning, he and his friends discovered a body on the sand at the shore. The North Koreans had deployed a small boat to infiltrate the coastline, but the South Korean navy had discovered the soldiers, leading to a firefight. No North Koreans survived.

“Things like that just reminded us of the possible threat,” Dr. Somerville remembered.

His family intermittently moved back to America throughout Dr. Somerville’s childhood. They lived in North Carolina from 1964 until 1968—a “turbulent time” in American history, with anti-war demonstrations appearing in universities, the civil rights movement in full-swing, and hippie counterculture thriving among the younger generation. “It wasn’t the best time to come back,” he said, “but I turned out okay.”

Dr. Somerville began college in 1972. In his years as an undergraduate student, he changed his major four times before settling on English. As he progressed through graduate school and his PhD program at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Somerville’s father continued to lead and inspire his son. “He was a model to me when I went on to get my PhD,” he said.

“My parents were missionaries,” Dr. Somerville said, “and my mom’s parents were missionaries, my dad’s father was a minister. I didn’t do any of that. But maybe I’m a missionary here at Hillsdale.”

Though he may not be a missionary by trade, through his stories, I think anyone brave enough to take one of his difficult classes will find deep truths in Dr. Somerville’s anecdotes—spiritual, historical, or otherwise.


Chandler Ryd is a freshman at Hillsdale College who is majoring in English. He is a Collegian Freelancer, creative writer, photographer, filmmaker, and craft root beer enthusiast.