Dr. Mike Danoff was stunned when people from 10 states and two countries showed up at his Hilton Head Island home this month to celebrate his 70th birthday.
Tee times for 60 and a dinner for 120 -- with one of his sisters coming all the way from Korea -- were somehow kept secret in eight months of planning by his wife, Jayne.
All four of their children and six grandsons were there, along with all his siblings and many friends.
Everyone enjoyed the finest amenities of Palmetto Hall Plantation, where the retired cardiologist lives a life he says others would die for.
None of this should have ever happened.
Danoff came to America at age 12 -- alone -- on a slow freighter named Lightning.
For most of his life to that point, he thought he was an orphan, living in the streets of Seoul, Korea.
His father was a successful businessman, but it all changed in an instant at the outset of the Korean War when a bomb hit their house.
"I witnessed my mother with her legs severed turning toward me lifeless," Danoff said. "The house was on fire and there were cinders and smoke everywhere and people yelling and screaming. Just like a frightened animal, I ran."
To survive, he began to steal food and take things from empty houses. His hands are still scarred from frostbite.
Then he saw Westerners.
"They were huge, with blond hair," he said. "To me they sort of looked like monsters from outer space."
Someone told him if he'd shine their boots they'd pay him with greenbacks. His first words in English were, "Shoe shine, GI?"
Danoff cornered the market at one of the gates to the headquarters division of the U.S. Army 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion, 7th Infantry Division. He did such a good job, they invited him into the compound, where he was a shoe shine boy, house boy and mascot. The soldiers gave Chun Lee Ham the name "Mike."
"Now I had a place to sleep and eat," he said.
He attributes that invitation to a drive deep in his DNA.
He tells of his father taking him by hand to his first day of school. He remembers being dressed in a beautiful uniform with silver buttons and a hat. His father abruptly stopped and said, "Son, do you realize this is a very, very important day in your life?"
His reaction was something like, "Sure, it's school, let's go."
His father looked hurt. He spread his index finger several inches from his thumb and said, "This is the day that's going to lead to you being this much more important than I am. When you become a doctor, you'll understand this."
"I said, 'OK' and I took that to be a promise," Danoff said.
The GIs quickly realized he was a bright boy.
They taught him chess, and he could beat 10 of them at a time.
Master Sgt. Eli "Chip" Danoff Jr. of Harrisville, Pa., took a special interest the boy. His parents sent school primers, and a Hopalong Cassidy outfit.
Before Chip Danoff returned home in April 1953, his parents agreed to adopt the boy. The process revealed that Danoff's father survived the bombing, though seriously injured, and his brother and two sisters were alive. Reluctantly, the father gave permission for his son to go to America, and he became Mike Danoff.
The GIs put a sign that said "Mike's R&R" on a gallon-sized soup can and filled it with $650 for his trip.
When he arrived in San Francisco on Nov. 3, 1953, no one was there to pick him up.
Modes of motivation
Chip Danoff arrived a couple of days later, but he wasn't the same. He looked like he'd aged. He was unshaven and smoking non-stop. He was obviously not happy to see the boy he had championed. Little was said on the long trip east in his 1949 black Chevy sedan, but finally he broke down and said, "I don't think I can take you home."
As Mike was crossing the Pacific Ocean, Chip's mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. When the boy stepped into his future at the Danoff's 14-acre truck farm, Mike's adopted father didn't make eye contact, didn't stand up, didn't ask if he were hungry. Without any exchange, Chip showed him a room upstairs.
"I do not cast any aspersions on Eli Danoff," the doctor says today. "He was probably a good soul, and because of him I am in this country. It was just the wrong time, wrong chemistry."
Mike was enrolled in the fifth grade, and the Danoffs held a birthday party for him that the newspaper covered under the headline: "Birthday Party, Yankee Style, Thrills Korea War Orphan, 12."
Mike was soon taken in by the family of one of Chip's friends, Donald S. Kelly, now the retired chairman of the history department at Slippery Rock University.
Later when Chip got married, Mike rejoined him, acting almost as an au pair as the family grew.
He worked a number of jobs to send money to his family in Korea. And he loved to go to school, even though children made fun of him, a tiny figure, and the only Asian around. It made him determined to win them over. "Another mode of motivation, if you will," he said. They said he couldn't play sports, so he earned four varsity letters while attending several high schools. He set a school record in the mile, and he twice lettered in basketball.
When he graduated from Chestnut Ridge High in 1960, Mike Danoff was on his own.
Learning and heartbreak
He earned an academic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. He got the idea he'd finish in two years and go to medical school. He was laughed at. But he took the Medical College Admission Test as an experiment in his sophomore year and got a letter admitting him to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that fall.
He then got an unexpected visit that, to this day, he cannot explain. It was a high school math teacher, Robert Rorabaugh, asking if he'd sent in the $50 needed to reserve his seat in the med school class of 1966. Danoff didn't have $50, but the teacher sent it in with all the paperwork.
Danoff still doesn't have an undergraduate degree. But on graduation day he held his medical degree skyward at Pitt's famed Cathedral of Learning and cried, "Is that good enough for you?"
"I think I felt my father saying, 'Good job, son,' but of course you never know that," he said.
Twice during med school his sisters urged him to drop whatever he was doing and come home, first when his father was near death and then when his younger brother, John, needed a father figure.
Danoff didn't go either time. He still feels some regret. But he joined the U.S. Army after med school and was granted his wish to serve two years in Korea. There, he got his brother into the service, where they whipped him in shape. He brought John back to America, where he became a nuclear-plant welder "and retired way before I did," Danoff says. Sister Chun Ja Ham lives in Seoul and Ok Ja Ham lives in New York.
After med school, Danoff witnessed the demise of his champion, Chip, who killed himself and left a note that Danoff said in part blamed him.
It would become another challenge that forged his philosophy: "Move on. Movement is not only in muscles and joints, but in thoughts, action, behavior and speech. Movement and actions suggest life."
'I can do it'
Danoff's friends tease him that he was frightened at his first sight of Westerners, but ended up marrying one in 1967. Jayne is from a family of 13 children in Pittsburgh, with six of them able to attend the birthday surprise.
At work, Danoff's cardiology group grew to six doctors and thousands of patients. In a 36-year career, he was known in Pittsburgh for shifting the paradigm for heart-attack treatment from bed rest to active rehabilitation.
After retiring in 2009, his idea of rest is golfing, bicycling, teaching CPR, reading. Active family vacations led them to buy a Hilton Head timeshare in the mid 1980s and build their home in the late 1990s.
Now he wants to immerse himself in the native heritage that he says he abandoned. He wants to learn the language. Maybe he will join others like golfer K.J. Choi and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who is half Korean, in helping orphanages and the poor in South Korea.
Danoff's friends say he is smart, but more than that, he is driven. He will not accept failure.
His children have asked him to write his life's story. He's working on it. He said he'll tell it in case one person might read it and say, "If he can do it, I can do it."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.