By all accounts, Yong Hwan Gwon was not very well-known in High Point.
A native of South Korea, the 72-year-old Gwon spoke almost no English — despite having lived in the United States for more than a decade — and did little to distinguish himself across the city.
But in the places where he spent most of his time — in his home, in his neighborhood and at his church — the devoted husband, father and grandfather left his mark on the hearts of those who loved him.
“He just seemed to touch everybody’s life who knew him,” says Geoff Beaston, who lives in Gwon’s Blairwood Estates neighborhood. “I didn’t even know him personally, but I felt like I did.”
Gwon died in a horrific car crash May 1 — two weeks ago today — on Johnson Street near the Oakview Drive intersection. Driving a 2014 Honda Accord, he was struck shortly before midnight by a Chevrolet Camaro — traveling at a breakneck speed, according to police — as he pulled out of the parking lot at his church, the Korean American Presbyterian Church of Greater Greensboro.
The other driver, 32-year-old Raeshaun S. Smith of High Point, reached speeds upwards of 80 mph just before the crash, police said. Smith faces multiple charges in the incident, including misdemeanor death by vehicle.
The news of Gwon’s death sent waves of shock and sadness through the Blairwood Estates subdivision, where Gwon happily walked his dogs every day, smiled and waved at neighbors, worked tirelessly in his garden and shared vegetables with the couple next door. If you live in Blairwood, you knew Gwon by his unbridled friendliness, whether you knew his name or not.
“When cars would pass, he would smile so big and wave like he was stranded on an island trying to catch the attention of a passing ship,” Beaston says. “He brought so many smiles to my face and the faces of our entire neighborhood.”
On the evening of May 5, following Gwon’s funeral, nearly 50 Blairwood residents gathered in the neighborhood for a candlelight vigil in his memory.
Gwon’s next-door neighbors, Ruth and Charlie Cardillo, also placed a poster on Blairwood Street, between their yard and Gwon’s, with his picture and the words “In Loving Memory of Our Neighborhood Friend.” Several neighbors signed the poster with words of remembrance, and nearly a dozen potted flower arrangements have been placed around the poster.
In response, Gwon’s family positioned a sign right beside the Cardillos’ poster, thanking the neighbors for their thoughtfulness.
“He was such a sweetheart — just super-super-friendly,” says Ruth Cardillo, who often waved to Gwon from her back porch as he worked in his backyard. “His smile was infectious — you always looked forward to seeing him.”
Cardillo says she and Gwon often exchanged vegetables with one another, even though the language barrier prevented them from having conversations.
“We wish we could’ve gotten to know him better, but we couldn’t because of the language barrier,” she says. “We kind of knew him through his mannerisms and his friendliness.”
Cardillo says she also knew Gwon to be a man of faith, evidenced not only by the “Thank You Jesus” sign placed prominently in his front yard but also by many of the tribute photos she saw when she watched his live-streamed memorial service.
“I couldn’t understand a word they said, but they showed pictures of him handing out tracts and trying to tell people about Jesus,” Cardillo says. “He seems to have been very involved at his church.”
Gwon joined the church in 2009 and became an active member, according to Jimu Kang, associate pastor. He was a deacon and found numerous other ways to serve the congregation.
“We have a dawn prayer meeting, and every day he would come around 4:30 in the morning to open up the church and prepare the coffee,” Kang says. “After the prayer meeting, he would stay and clean up the lobby. He did that every meeting.”
Sometimes, Gwon went to the church on his own — when nobody else was there — simply to pray. Family members think that may have been the reason he was at the church on the night he was killed.
“I asked his daughter-in-law why he was at the church so late,” Cardillo says, “and she said it wasn’t uncommon for him to go to the church and pray.”
Gwon had another claim to fame at the church — he was the congregational table tennis champion.
“He was 72,” says Kang, “but he was the champion.”
At Gwon’s memorial service, a small table at the front of the church held a framed photograph of Gwon, his Bible and his ping pong paddle.
“He was very well-loved in our church,” Kang says. “As Christians, we know we will meet him again, but it’s hard to say goodbye this way. His death has really impacted the Korean society of High Point and Greensboro.”
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