Repairing The Ring

photo by John Mattera

Although the Korean Friendship Bell’s home has always been on the bluff in Angel’s Gate Park, the very first time it was rung was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, Korea. United States and Korean officials ceremoniously rang the bell before it made its voyage across the Pacific on the Fourth of July, 1976.

The creation and erection of the bell was unlike any monument in the US. The bell was given by the Republic of Korea on the bicentennial celebration of American independence. In creating this bell, they tapped a lost art. When the 17-ton bell was cast, it had been over a thousand years since a bell of that size had been cast in Korea. The bell was modeled after the Bell of King Seongdeok, which was cast in 771 AD.

When the bell arrived in the Port of Los Angeles, it took two weeks to unload 28 cargo containers of materials. Korean stonemasons and carpenters worked 14-hour days to construct the belfry, platform and steps.

Finally, in October of 1976, four months after its first ring, the bell was officially dedicated, and struck on American soil.

Now, almost four decades have passed with little or no maintenance to keep the bell in good condition. Bird excrement is caked onto the belfry, there is obvious deterioration of the protecting layer on the bell and deviants have even marked the inside of it with graffiti. For nearly a year, the bell could not be rung because the link needed repair. The link is the wooden structure holding the bell to the belfry, which had fully broken causing the bell to twist.

The bell was in obvious need of a protector. That’s where Ernest Lee and the Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee come in.

The committee of 33 formed in 2006 with hopes of getting the bell back to its former glory.

“The bell called out to us,” says Lee. “ When you see the bell, you feel heartbroken with the shape that it’s in, and still awestruck with its beauty. Rather than just aching about it, we thought, let’s do something about it and have a long term plan.”

Rarely seen photographs of the construction of the Korean Friendship Bell belfry circa the mid-1970s. (photos provided by Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee)

While there are organizations that are designated to take care of city or federal landmarks, Lee says they don’t have the trained personnel to do it. Bell making is a particular craft, so the committee did their research.

“We found the company that originally worked on the bell,” says Lee. “All but one of the masters had passed away. We spoke with the surviving member of the group who, in 2011, sent his protégé here to give us an estimate to refurbish the bell.”

The budget based on his estimate: about $360,000.

Lee explains that the reason for the high price tag is that all of the key time frames for maintenance were missed.

“The salt air and strong winds of the area obviously don’t help,” he says. He stresses the need for caution with restoration. “First we want to do no harm. We have to work in careful and steady steps.”

Indeed, if the restoration is done hastily using craftsmen who are unfamiliar with the art of bellfounding, they may do irreversible damage. Besides it being an ancient craft, the bell is also covered with intricate artwork and an inscription engraved in relief on the bell. The bell is made of copper and tin, with gold, nickel, lead and phosphorous added for tone quality.

“The bell was designed to be an instrument,” says Lee. “It has a narrow tube inside and the bowl at the bottom for acoustic resonance.”

Korean craftsmen designed the belfry. Everything about the pagoda-like structure that houses the bell was done with purpose and symbolism. Creating the bell itself was not something that was done easily in Korea. Casting a bell that large is uncommon, and in the first attempt it was broken. The total cost for the bell and structure was over a million dollars, paid for by the Korean government.

With all of the painstaking attention to detail that was administered in its creation, it’s no wonder that there is a laundry list of repairs that the landmark must undergo to regain its full brilliance.

“We need to carefully sandblast the outer bell and fill holes,” says Lee. “There is bird-proofing that needs to be done, painting and the wooden striker needs to be replaced.” They already fixed the link in 2011, just in time for its 35th anniversary.

The road to getting the rest of these restorations will not be an easy one. The group of volunteers has worked tirelessly to get donations. One fundraising campaign was inspired by Lee’s friend and mentor, San Pedro icon, John Olguin.

“He used to say, ‘I’d rather get a dollar from a thousand people then have one person write a check for a thousand dollars,’” says Lee. “We fundraised all over San Pedro and Los Angeles, asking that people give a dollar donation for the bell.”

In following Olguin’s saying, they hope that with individuals reaching into their own pocketbooks, they will feel personally invested and connected to the cause.

The committee has about $280,000 for restoration. $5,000 came from residents in San Pedro and Koreatown and $275,000 has been allocated by the South Korean government. Although grateful for the large influx from the South Koreans, Lee believes that it’s time for the American government to take the reigns.

“We’re hoping that the city council will assist in matching what the South Korean government has donated,” says Lee. “It’s time to say it’s ours, we’ll take care of this magnificent gift.”

The committee is planning a fundraising golf tournament this spring to raise more cash. With the bell being such an iconic San Pedro landmark, Lee believes community members will step up.

“The meaning comes from the memory that attaches to it,” says Lee. Many San Pedrans find that meaning in the memories of family picnics on the great expanse of grass in front of the bell, flying kites, or even one of the many weddings that take place at the bell’s steps.

Deterioration of the wooden bell ringer (left), on the ceiling (bottom left), structural column damage and bell corrosion (right) due to improper upkeep and weather has taken its toll on the bell. (photos by John Mattera)

For Lee, the bell symbolizes an important friendship between two countries.

“If it were not for the United States involvement with Korean independence, I may not be here today,” says Lee. Lee’s parents emigrated from South Korea, which benefitted from the U.S. involvement in the 1950 Korean War. The U.S. defended South Korea against North Korean invasion, splitting the two countries at the 38th parallel or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

According to the Department of Defense, the total American military casualties resulting from the Korean War were over 50,000. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Koreans have fought alongside American military in both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The bell’s symbolism holds a significance that’s not lost on the committee.

“I feel as the other committee members do,” says Lee. “Honored and privileged to have this opportunity. We’re also painfully aware of the grave responsibility.”

They hope to start restoration as early as May, but funds will dictate their timeline. Their wishlist for the future includes the lower parking lot connecting to the bell and more wheelchair accessible areas. “I know there are Korean War veterans who are disabled and would like to get around up here.”

Most of all, Lee hopes to restore the bell so that future generations can see it as it was when it first traveled nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific to the bluff at Angel’s Gate Park. spt

For more info, visit www.kfbpc.org or email info.kfbpc@gmail.com.

For Love Of The Game

Shelley Smith, photographed at San Pedro High School (photo by John Mattera)

It’s November, the heart of college football season, and for Shelley Smith, that means no rest, several flights in-and-out of LAX and every Saturday spent at a different football stadium across the country.

But it’s not just college football that keeps Smith from curling up on the couch to the latest blockbuster hit, it’s also Thursday night NFL games, pre-season NBA games, the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal and the continued lockout talks of the NHL strike.

It’s these precise reasons though, that get Smith out of bed each and every morning, well these and her daily trips to the local San Pedro gym, Hey Day Fitness, where she can talk sports without the pressure of a camera in her face.

Smith loves her job, and she loves it because “no single day is the same.”

Smith joined ESPN in 1997 and quickly became one of the leading ladies in sports journalism. She has climbed the ranks and has had great success in doing so, including four Sports Emmys, one of which she received in 1997 for her segment on Magic Johnson as part of an ESPN production on AIDS and Athletes.

But she didn’t start at the top. For Smith, having an interest and passion for journalism started at a young age. But back then, it was an interest in breaking news and features, she hadn’t even considered a career in sports.

A Denver native, Smith attended the University of Nebraska, where she majored in journalism and political science. During her time at Nebraska, Smith wrote for the college newspaper and through this came an opportunity for lunch with an alumnus, who happened to be the sports editor at a major newspaper in Denver.

“In college I thought I wanted to go into news or features reporting,” she says. “That all changed when the editor called me and offered me a gig in the sports department.”

Smith shooting a story on the “most dangerous golf hole in the world” along the DMZ in South Korea for ESPN in 2009. Smith originally covered the golf course in 1988 for her very first Sports Illustrated story. (photo by Dylann Tharp)

The editor took notice in Smith, and she never looked back. Now a sideline reporter for ESPN, Smith is an award-winning journalist and author of three books, with a fourth — Al: The unauthorized biography of Raiders owner Al Davis – on its way. But she says it’s been a constant challenge, and she has always set out to outwork and out prepare her peers.

“You make your own luck in this field by working hard,” says Smith. “If you are well prepared and work harder than anyone else you can make up for what you lack in talent. It is really about taking the extra time and getting it right, but don’t get me wrong, I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time a couple times.”

Case in point, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Smith was in Seoul covering the Olympics for Sports Illustrated when word broke that Canadian Ben Johnson would be stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids. Upon hearing the news, Smith, along with a photographer, raced to the airport, where Johnson would soon be boarding for a flight to New York – Smith got on that flight, sat with Johnson for 45 minutes and conducted the first one-on-one interview, an exclusive.

“When I got on that plane I knew it would be my big break,” she recalls. And it was.

The Ben Johnson exclusive is arguably Smith’s biggest story ever – and she says she will never forget the rush of it all.

“I knew it would be the biggest story I would ever cover,” she says. “It was the middle of the night, a double-decker plane, and I knew I was sitting on something huge. It was the greatest feeling in the world to get off the plane with hoards of reporters waiting for Johnson’s arrival and walk past them knowing I already had the story.”

This was just the start for Smith, who was offered a position with Sports Illustrated in 1989, and six months later was asked to make a move to the West Coast from New York.

“When I was in college, we print journalists thought broadcast journalists should be in the drama department,” she says. “We thought we were the only serious journalists – so when I accepted the position at Sports Illustrated in 1989, I had reached my destination, I was a writer and that’s what I wanted.”

Upon arriving in California, she made her home in San Pedro.

“I loved San Pedro,” she says. “The air was clean, it was a affordable and it didn’t seem like big, splashy Los Angeles.” Smith’s daughter, Dylann Tharp, was three at the time, and she wanted her to grow up in a good community.

“It was important, with all the traveling I do, to have a place to come home to,” she says. “A place to exhale – I have stayed in San Pedro ever since.”

Tharp, now 26, was a fixture on working road trips. Smith remembers various all-star games where Tharp would sit on the floor next to her and play with Barbies while Smith covered the game – so much so, that Tharp began to interact with the players and would later track them down for her Mom.

“I took Dylann with me a lot,” says Smith. “She grew up with Charles Barkley essentially – they are still good buds. She was with me on the NBA or NCAA tournament trail and also went with me to all the bowl games.”

“There is a photo above my fireplace where Barkley is holding her at the Minnesota All-Star Game, after chastising me for using my kid to do all my work, my producer said, ‘Does she know Shaq?’”

Tharp, after graduating from San Pedro High School, captained the University of Oregon soccer team and in 2007 was named to the Pac-10 second team. She majored in art and communications at Oregon, and is now living and working in Los Angeles.

Since Smith joined ESPN in 1997, she has recorded hundreds of articles and reports on topics ranging from the Olympics to the O.J. Simpson trial. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS national championship game, the NHL Stanley Cup, golf and tennis championships, ski racing, weightlifting, boxing and motor sports.

“I’ve always wanted to write stories,” she says. “Making the transition to ESPN was difficult, it was a lot of training – hair training, make-up training, where to stand training, voice training — but I love it, I love being a sideline reporter. I love my job, and I love even more that everyday presents a different challenge — no day is the same.”

In addition, she is the co-founder of the Magic Johnson Foundation newsletter, serves on various committees for The Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro and is a volunteer writer for many charity organizations, including the Serra Project, which provides homes for AIDS victims.

Smith plans on walking the sidelines for sometime. She loves that her weeks can range from USC football, to Lakers basketball, to baseball and the NFL.

“I am writing a book on Al Davis, which is the hardest thing I have ever done,” she says. “But I have also found a new passion for jumping on stories. I love my job, I love it all. Everyday is different, the sports world is always changing, and something is always happening.” spt