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Coronavirus Victims: Chicago Civil Engineer Kai Wong Sam

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Civil engineer Kai Wong Sam spent the second half of his life in Chicago. He was 85 when he died there from COVID-19 complications in April.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Kai began the first half of his life in Malaysia. His path to Illinois was an unlikely one, and it started with a letter.

LIAN SAM: At that time, pen pals was very, very popular. Everybody, they were writing. They were happy to see somebody who would write just to improve our English. That's all. That's what we were doing.

SHAPIRO: That's Lian Sam. Kai was her childhood pen pal.

SAM: He's from Malaysia, and I am from Indonesia.

SHAPIRO: They exchanged letters for years - getting to know each other, but mostly just trying to practice their English.

VANEK SMITH: As they grew up, they stopped writing letters. Lian went to the U.S. to further her education, and Kai went to Australia.

SAM: So we both went separate ways for the same reason.

SHAPIRO: Fifteen years went by. Kai settled in Toronto and heard that Lian ended up in Chicago. He called her up to say he wanted to visit. The two had never met in person before.

SAM: He opened his passport. He said, you know, you have to believe me. This is me. So I said, OK, I believe you. You have a picture in your passport.

VANEK SMITH: From then on, they started a new kind of correspondence. They talked on the phone and visited each other. Eventually they fell in love.

SAM: Well, as time passed, we ended up marrying each other.

VANEK SMITH: They had a son named Lee.

SHAPIRO: In Chicago, Kai worked as a building inspector. He also worked on the Deep Tunnel, a massive infrastructure project to solve water pollution problems in Cook County.

VANEK SMITH: Fittingly, Kai enjoyed collecting stamps. And every day, he hung out with a group of friends in the back of a Chinatown bakery.

SAM: There would sit for hours talking about I do not know what either (ph). When he comes home, he'd say, oh, I had such a good meeting. He is a very easy person to get to know. He loves people, period.

SHAPIRO: Lian Sam says she can still picture Kai coming through the door to their home.

SAM: To this day, I still miss him. I wish he was just walking around and talking about jokes and, you know, giving me some advice.

VANEK SMITH: Between a basement flood and the chaos of the pandemic, Lian doesn't know exactly where those original pen pal letters are right now. But what she does know is those letters were really just the beginning of a connection that spanned borders, oceans and more than half a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "LAMENATION FOR A LOST LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.