Washington state Sen. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo, listens to debate on the Senate floor in Olympia on March 12, 1999. (AP Photo/Louie Balukoff, file)

Washington state Sen. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo, listens to debate on the Senate floor in Olympia on March 12, 1999. (AP Photo/Louie Balukoff, file)

Paull Shin went from Seoul streets to Senate leadership

The state’s first Korean-American lawmaker, who died this week, had an inspiring life story.

EDMONDS — Paull Shin, who grew up on the streets in Korea and later strolled the corridors of power at the state Capitol, died peacefully in his Edmonds home this week. He was 85.

Shin became the first Korean-American member of the Legislature when he won a House seat in 1992. The Democrat was in the final year of his fourth term in the Senate when an Alzheimer’s diagnosis forced him to resign in 2014.

“He was an incredible trailblazer,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who succeeded Shin. With a life that embodied the American dream, Shin often described serving as a lawmaker as “payback time” for all that our country had given him, Liias said.

Born in Korea in 1935, Shin lost his family at an early age and survived as an orphan on the streets of Seoul. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he became a houseboy for a group of U.S. Army officers.

In 1954 one of them, Ray Paull, a dentist, adopted him and the teenage Shin returned with the Army officer to Utah. The unusual spelling of Shin’s first name is intended to honor his adopted family’s surname.

Shin didn’t attend school in Korea and knew little English when he arrived in the U.S. But he proved a quick study and an avid consumer of knowledge. He completed his GED in 18 months, according to his family. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brigham Young University and both a master’s and a doctorate from the University of Washington. Shin taught American and Asian history at Shoreline Community College for 31 years.

“Paull would share the simple phrase about his life that he first learned his ABCs then he got his GED and then he got his Ph.D.,” Liias said during an emotional speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

“He was a friend, he was a mentor, someone who helped guide the community,” Liias said. “I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to follow in his footsteps, serve alongside him and learn from him in this journey.”

Strom Peterson interacted with Shin while serving on the Edmonds City Council.

“His life story … is one of those that if you don’t know it’s true, you wouldn’t believe it,” said Peterson, now a state representative.

When he last saw Shin and his wife, Donna, at the Edmonds Farmer’s Market, “Paull still had that smile and kindness about him that was one of his traits.”

The couple moved to Edmonds in 1968. Through his civic involvement and political career, Shin gave voice to the causes and concerns of Korean families in the county, and across the state. His activism extended to his faith, as well. He was a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Democratic Rep. Cindy Ryu of Shoreline said he “will be missed by many in the Korean American community. Even before his service in the Legislature, he was a long-time real estate agent handling many transactions and attending community events, including my wedding 38 years ago.”

Shin had high ambitions in politics. He was known for tireless door-to-door campaigning. After serving one term in the House, he passed on re-election in 1994 to run for Congress and lost. Two years later he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

In 1998, he beat a Republican incumbent to win the Senate seat in the 21st Legislative District, which covers Mukilteo, most of Edmonds, unincorporated areas north of Edmonds and Lynnwood, and part of south Everett. He was re-elected three times.

In the Legislature, Shin emerged as an advocate for higher education, the developmentally disabled, immigrants, veterans and trade and economic development. His tenure included a stint as chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, and he took part in several international trade missions.

Shin worked on many initiatives related to education. One of those was promotion of the Korea Studies Program at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at UW. In 2007, faculty there voted to rename the program in his honor. He asked them to wait until he left office, which they did.

He talked up the program in trips to South Korea, where he would meet with business and education leaders. He authored legislation to boost instruction about the language and culture of Korea and other Asian nations.

“He was really a rock star in Korea,” said Tim Sheldon, a Democratic state senator from Potlatch who served with Shin in both legislative chambers.

“When you got to know Senator Shin and his personal story, it was impossible to have a bad day,” he said during a Senate floor session Thursday. “He always gave you a handshake when you talked to him during the day and when he said good morning to you. I will always remember that handshake. Firm and earnest.”

Shin is survived by his wife, two children, five grandsons and three great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Mukilteo Boys & Girls Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars or World Vision.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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