The Extraordinary Journey of William and Mary Keh

Written by Audrey Chen and Shui Mei Tsai
Translated by Ariel Chan
Edited by Chen Chen and Adriana DiBenedetto

William and Mary Keh beam with joy in a photo together. Photo/William Keh

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Born and raised in Taiwan, William Keh has devoted half his life to working in the United States. A medical school graduate from National Taiwan University, he became a surgeon and obtained his certification in financial planning. However, in 1994, at the peak of his life, William Keh found himself filled with uncertainty about the future. Despite possessing wealth and notoriety that many envied, it was evident that material success was not his ultimate pursuit in life.

Judged by the Grim Reaper

Serving as the manager of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, California, then becoming Executive Director of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation in the U.S. in 2014, and later rising to the position of chairman in 2021, William Keh retired in August 2022 due to illness. Although he was battling the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease upon his return to Taiwan, he persisted in speaking at Tzu Chi chapters across Taiwan, gripping the microphone with conviction despite hands that trembled. His ultimate vow was to guide more people to engage in Tzu Chi’s work through his life story, “Finding Joy in Letting Go.”

In 2023, the Tainan Jing Si Hall hosts the “The Arduous Path of Tzu Chi in the United States: Finding Joy in Letting Go” seminar, where William Keh and his wife Mary Keh share their life stories. Photo/Ping Li

In the first half of Keh’s life, from a mischievous boy in Gangshan, Taiwan, to a high-achieving biology student at National Taiwan University, he decided to pursue medical studies. He emerged into the field as a dark horse, donning the coveted white coat of a medical graduate. Further motivated by his wife, Mary Keh, he set his gaze upon the business world, simultaneously pursuing an Executive MBA.

Before turning 40, Dr. Keh already possessed wealth, status, luxury homes, and cars. It’s hard to imagine how such a successful life could be deeply troubled by a “midlife crisis,” yet Keh often woke in the middle of the night from nightmares. He dreamed of the Grim Reaper judging his life, questioning what good deeds he had done. In those heart-pounding moments, he felt he was a self-centered man.

William Keh (middle) and Mary Keh (right) join a Tzu Chi street fundraiser following the 2018 mountain fire in California, with Tzu Chi volunteers from Los Angeles heading to various cities to raise relief donations. Photo/Songgu Tsai

Mary Keh shared that her husband views wealth and notoriety lightly. This can be traced back to his university days. During their first visit to Chicago to see university classmate, Dr. Chingchung Huang, Mary noticed William Keh’s message in the National Taiwan University Medical School graduation album. It read, “At the most opportune time and with the best of friends, I’ll go to places that need me the most and do what needs to be done.” She was astonished that he had already committed to such a vow at just over twenty years old.

Thriving in his career, William couldn’t shake off the lingering sense of loss in his heart. As William Keh reflected, in 1994, he returned to Taiwan from New York for work. On the plane, he found himself seated next to Tzu Chi volunteer Chiu Hsiang Li. While most passengers were already deeply asleep, Li appeared to be very engrossed with something. Curious, William asked, “What are you busy with?” Li set aside her task and enthusiastically shared about Tzu Chi, her face beaming with joy. She spoke passionately about her experiences as a volunteer, her eyes bright.

It was unfathomable to be so happy doing unpaid work. Even my employees don’t take their paid jobs as seriously. This deeply moved me, and I couldn’t help but take out the dollar bills I had on me, asking her to help donate on my behalf. She is the first benefactor in my life.

After returning to the U.S., William Keh momentarily placed the incident in the back of his mind. That was, until Mary was invited to a tea gathering organized by Tzu Chi volunteers in Long Island in 1995. Seeing the name “Tzu Chi” again reminded William of the heartwarming experience on the plane a year earlier, reviving his draw to the Foundation. Mary, having developed an interest in sign language, had eagerly participated in a variety of Tzu Chi events over the years as well. Gradually, her perspective shifted through her time with Tzu Chi, and indirectly, William became a beneficiary of Tzu Chi, too. In the same year, the couple took refuge under Tzu Chi’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen.

Tzu Chi volunteers from the U.S. Headquarters in San Dimas, California, collaborate with Pacific Clinics to bring Tzu Chi Vision Mobile Clinic services to the community. In the photo, William Keh (right) and Mary Keh (second right) offer hand sanitizer to visitors. Photo/Shuli Luo

Mary Keh has always played a supporting role in Tzu Chi, and is committed to her work. Described as a “dynamic duo,” Mary has prioritized William in her life since their first encounter at the age of 19. Although she may seem assertive, she deeply values every word William speaks.

Throughout William’s medical school years, Mary listened openly to all his aspirations. When he decided to study in the U.S., she left her comfortable life in Taiwan to accompany him. During his struggling student days in the U.S., she transformed into a strong woman in the business world, surviving in New York with no family or connections. When he decided to become a full-time Tzu Chi volunteer, she supported him wholeheartedly, also giving up business. Mary is considered William’s number-one fan.

Power is temporary, wealth is for future generations, health is for oneself. Take care of your body because the days behind us will accumulate while the days before us will diminish. Seize the present and do more good with Tzu Chi.

After learning Buddhist teachings, Mary began to explore diverse life perspectives and realized her responsibility to assist. When William, known for his calm demeanor, hesitated in decision-making, she played a decisive role, ensuring many tasks were completed on time. When Master Cheng Yen appointed William as chairman of the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation and leader of Tzu Chi’s U.S. medical mission, Mary felt relieved of her unease in persuading William to switch his focus from medicine to business.

From Splendor to Simplicity

In 1997, William Keh became the head of the Tzu Chi Long Island Service Center. When he asked Stephen Huang, the then Executive Director of the Tzu Chi USA Chapter (later renamed Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters), how to excel in this role, Huang responded, “Do disaster relief work.”

William Keh (left) treats a patient while Mary Keh (middle) oversees his intake work. Photo/Singhong Chou

William’s first endeavor into the world of Tzu Chi’s relief work began within underserved communities in Guizhou, China, and left a profound impact on him. The disciplined and earnest Tzu Chi relief teams impressed him. From Yunnan province’s Kunming city to Guizhou, they endured a 22-hour flight and six hours by car before finally arriving early in the morning. Despite fatigue, they had to wake up at 4:00 AM the next day. William was astonished at the selflessness of Tzu Chi volunteers, even in moments of extreme exhaustion.

Witnessing the pain and heartache of Guizhou locals made William reflect on his own blessings. Born in Taiwan, he had the opportunity to study abroad and start a business. Previously, he believed everything he had was simply the fruit of his own efforts and felt entitled to it. However, through Tzu Chi’s free clinics and disaster relief, William developed a profound sense of gratitude.

Experiences gained in Tzu Chi are priceless. In an instant, I felt blessed. After encountering Tzu Chi, life became truly meaningful.

William never backed down when facing difficulties or feeling hopeless. The moments that did bring tears to his eyes were upon witnessing Master Cheng Yen’s or Tzu Chi volunteers’ proactive dedication and quiet giving. Their selfless contributions and genuine altruism always have a way of bringing such quiet sentiments to the surface.

William Keh’s life journey might seem smooth from an outsider’s eyes, but it hasn’t always been the case. He was once a child who had a stutter, a neglected student from a rural area, a lone explorer navigating the challenges of medical school, and a financially struggling student seeking education in the United States. How did William overcome these obstacles to navigate to the shores of happiness? His life resembles a rock-climbing challenge, winding through decades, conquering peaks time and again. Eventually, he chose to turn down splendor for simplicity, and found his home in Tzu Chi.

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