Emory Report

July 24, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 38

Emory Profile: Lillian Kim

Write with the program

By Eric Rangus

Sharp-eyed readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution may recognize Lillian Kim's name. Prior to moving to Emory last December, Kim, assistant director of Health Sciences communications, was a staff writer at the paper for six years.

Among her beats, Kim covered cops in Gwinnett ("That was very interesting. You learn a lot about real life and the seamy underside of society. It's just very eye-opening."), the Olympic Village in 1996 ("It was alternately very stressful and very boring. There were long stretches where there was nothing to do, then there were bursts of frenzied activity."), Gwinnett Co. government and transportation.

For her last two years at the paper, she worked the medical beat, which is what eventually led her to Emory. Readers of Emory Report may be familiar with Kim, as well. Her medical stories are regular features, such as her piece on anxiety disorder treatment that appears on page 6 of this issue.

Her work now involves translating the work and words of Emory scientists and doctors for the media. Her old job often involved experiences that were far less pleasing.

"People wonder about journalists being vultures," Kim said. "They do have consciences, a lot of them."

For instance, Kim was one of the paper's many reporters sent to Hartsfield International Airport to interview family members of passengers on ValuJet Flight 592, which crashed into the Everglades en route to Atlanta from Miami, May 11, 1996.

"That's the kind of assignment that makes your entrails sink down into your feet," she said. "You really feel ashamed of the profession."

Covering the police beat, which is often the realm of young writers, can also test their stamina. When Kim was 19 and covering cops in Gwinnett, she had to interview the widow of a policeman who had been shot to death by a motorist he had stopped. The couple had three young children.

"That was probably the hardest thing I had to do as a journalist," Kim said. "I drove up to this woman's house in Winder; there were relatives everywhere, and they were all looking at me like I was scum-and at the time, I was, and I felt horrible." The experience, though, turned out to be positive, as she produced a tender story about the deceased policeman and his family.

The high-stress environment of a daily newspaper burns out many reporters. Kim said that didn't happen to her, but late last year she began to explore other career options.

"The irony of it was that I had mentioned to someone that if I ever went to work in media relations, it would have to be for Emory because I'd always had a great deal of respect for [the Emory people]," Kim said.

Kim's artistic talents range beyond writing. While growing up, she played violin for the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra and even considered attending a music conservatory rather than a liberal arts university. When she went to Yale, she joined its orchestra as well. A biology major when she moved to Connecticut (she graduated with a English degree), Kim devoted most of her free time to music. And she paid a price.

"I became very serious-to the point where I was overpracticing," Kim said. She put in three-to-four hours a day with her instrument and developed tendinitis. That meant she had to explore other interests. Quite by accident, she turned to newspaper writing.

An acquaintance of hers was the news and features editor for the Yale Herald, one of two student-run newspapers on the campus (Yale does not offer a journalism degree). Since she had some free time, he asked her for help on a story he was writing. She ended up doing the piece pretty much on her own.

Kim made an impression because she was invited to the Herald's next story meeting, where she received a formal assignment, and a career was born.

When Kim's tendinitis cleared up, she found that her musical fire wasn't burning quite as brightly. "When I came back to music, I found out I didn't enjoy it as much as I had before," Kim said.

She had another, more serious, problem, too. She had developed stage fright.

"I couldn't perform solo anymore. It was very, very frightening," she said. "A big part of studying classical music is performing by yourself in front of a group of people. It was very hard for me, and I just enjoyed the newspaper a lot more."

Her work at the Yale Herald earned her an internship with the AJC, which then led to a full-time position.

Interestingly, when music was denied to her, Kim turned to writing. It was writing at the AJC that led Kim back into music. In 1996, when Kim was working as a general assignment reporter, fellow AJC writer Charles Walston approached her. In addition to working for the paper, he was also a member of a local rockabilly band called the Vidalias.

"We're looking for a violinist to perform on our upcoming CD and we were wondering if you'd be willing to give it a try," he asked her.

"Sure, give me the part, I'll learn it and audition for you," Kim replied.

Walston paused. "We don't have a part. You have to write the part," he said.

So she did. Then Kim, who had never written her own music before, spent six hours recording her part for the song "What A Nice Surprise," which made it on the Vidalias' second CD, Stayin' in the Doghouse, which was released in 1997.

The music, which is similar to the rootsy rock of Steve Earle or Son Volt, was a major departure for the classically trained Kim. "That was the kind of music I listened to, but never played. Certainly not with a violin."

Her contribution to the Vidalias was not limited to the studio. Having overcome her stage fright, she joined them for gigs in several bars around Atlanta as well as an appearance on the Locals Only show on 99X (WNNX, 99.7 FM).

The Vidalias, however, didn't last. As is commonplace in bands, real life (the birth of children, regular employment) took over and the band went on hiatus in 1998. It hasn't performed or recorded since. There's still hope that they will get back together and record some new songs, though, Kim said.

For now, though, Kim is comfortable at Emory. She is working on her master's of public health in epidemiology and concentrating on setting down some roots.

"I think the combination of being back in school and this new job will keep my interest piqued for a very long time," she said. "This is the first big change I've made, and it's been a lot of fun. I want to see how this will go."

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