David Nemeth is approaching his 30th year of teaching at University of Toledo, and throughout that time he has conducted extensive research on Korean culture, earning him the second annual Kevin O’Donnell Distinguished Friend of Korea Award this year.
Nemeth served in the Peace Corps from 1973 to 1974, but he didn’t know at that time the experience would stand as the foundation for his future career and research.
He chose to be stationed on Jeju Island, a small island off the coast of Korea, a place he now describes as mythical.
After coming back to the U.S., Nemeth said he “went back and did serious research for my Ph.D., which resulted in my dissertation at UCLA.”
His dissertation called “The Architecture of Ideology: Neo-Confucian Imprinting on Cheju Island, Korea,” was later published as a book focusing on Jeju culture.
Once Nemeth finished school, he returned to the island and taught at a university there.
He was concerned about building a career in the U.S. with little job experience here, so he left Jeju for the States once again, Nemeth said.
Eventually, Nemeth landed a position at UT, where he has taught ever since.
He might be on the wrong side of the Pacific, but he never gave up his passion for Jeju Island.
Over the decades Nemeth has published many research-based works. “Jeju Island Rambling: Self-exile in Peace Corps, 1973-1974” is a 52-chapter memoir about his time in Korea.
“All of the things I experienced were pure harmony between man and nature while I was there, so I like to capture that,” Nemeth said.
His work also caught the attention of Friends of Korea, prompting it to grant him the second-ever Kevin O’Donnell Distinguished Friend of Korea Award.
Friends of Korea is a group founded by former Peace Corps volunteers who served in the Republic of Korea. Its website explains that its mission is to be “dedicated to enhancing cultural awareness and friendship between Americans and Koreans.”
This year, the award was given to a handful of former volunteers who devoted their scholarly careers to Korean studies. They were honored at the 2017 annual meeting in Ann Arbor this past October, according to the website.
Nemeth expressed how grateful he was to win the award, as he has never received much international recognition for his work.
“I was so glad because the Peace Corps really changed my life,” he said.
Nemeth said he believes he received this award because he has documented a Jeju Island of the past, one that is no longer there.
When asked about his most recent visits, he said, “I’ll tell you what happened; it’s modernized so fast. The last time I was there, I was really disappointed.”
The magical culture that once captured his heart is quickly disappearing and being replaced with overdevelopment, but the history of that mystique will be forever depicted in his extensive documentation of the lush island.
That is why this island has caught the attention of scholars. The pre-modernized Jeju Island only exists in his publications, he said.
Cultural customs, such as Jeju women who dove off the coasts in search of shells, will only remain available in these books, Nemeth said. His experience also helped him develop and strengthen many other areas of research, such as his studies of Gypsies, he said.
Although they are seemingly two extremely different groups, both are very similar at times, especially in the intensity of their traditional culture and customs, Nemeth said.
Dr. Nemeth teaches Geography of Gypsies (Romanies) and Travelers every semester at UT.
Michael Chohaney, a Ph.D. candidate in Spatially Integrated Social Science, has worked with Nemeth throughout his career at UT because of a shared interest in American Gypsies, Chohaney said.
Nemeth has been “such a good mentor and advisor in life,” he said.