They met at an art show.
She was a painter displaying her abstract landscapes, a single mother of three daughters who’d grown up on a chicken farm in South Korea. He was a wealthy bachelor with more interest in politics than art who had stopped by the show in suburban Maryland on a whim.
His eyes didn’t gravitate to the paintings.
“I was more interested in the artist than the art,” he said.
He gave her his phone number, but she never called. Still, he didn’t give up. They eventually met again, fell in love and married several years later, in 2004.
They made history this week, moving into the Maryland governor’s mansion as a mixed-race couple in an increasingly diverse state — and as novices in wielding political power. Larry Hogan, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, had never held elected office before he won a stunning upset in November.
The love story of Larry and Yumi Hogan received scant attention during last year’s contentious race for Maryland’s governorship. But as they ease into their new roles — Yumi will hold her first official event Sunday — their late-in-life relationship will continue to help shape their public image and personal lives.
For Yumi, Larry’s insistence that she finally chase her own ambitions led her to art school and a job teaching painting — a role she intends to keep while making the arts a priority as first lady. For Larry, Yumi’s devotion to family rounded out the rough edges of a climb-the-ladder life, softening him and giving him an instant family.
“She helped me appreciate the important things in life,” the 58-year-old governor said in an interview. “I would not be the governor without the love and support of my wife and my daughters. They’ve been an incredible inspiration.”
The couple is moving into the mansion as empty nesters, bringing along Yumi’s special kimchi refrigerator; the family dog, Lexi; and the multicultural values of an extended family they say represents Maryland’s present and future. Two daughters are Democrats. One is a war veteran. And two of the three married men who aren’t Asian, including one of Puerto Rican descent.
The food and conversation around the holiday dinner table is a spirited smorgasbord.
“Like most Marylanders, we’re pretty much right in the middle,” said Jaymi Sterling, the middle daughter, a St. Mary’s County prosecutor who appeared in a campaign ad defending her stepfather on women’s issues. “Our family is like a microcosm of Maryland. In so many ways, it’s so diverse, just like Maryland is.”
In many ways, because of Yumi, it is also historic. She is believed to be the first Korean first lady in the United States. And her background in the arts sets her apart from Katie O’Malley and Kendel Ehrlich, the previous two first ladies, whose backgrounds were in law. Some of her paintings will hang on the mansion’s 145-year-old walls.
While her husband had tried several times to win elected office, American politics has mystified Yumi. Asked what she thought of the governor’s race, she said: “It’s still really shocking. Sometimes I cannot believe it.”
But she was a steady, if reserved, campaign partner for her husband, the founder of a commercial real estate firm who served as appointments secretary for former GOP governor Robert Ehrlich. At events, Larry would often say, “Get in here, honey.”
Though everyone called her “Mrs. Hogan,” she usually introduced herself as “Yumi,” saying it’s pronounced like “you and me.” She has worked hard to improve her English.
Her transformation has been thrilling for the region’s dynamic Korean community and for her colleagues at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
“It is totally unbelievable to see her go from teaching at MICA to being first lady,” said Rex Stevens, the chairman of MICA’s drawing and general fine arts department. “That has to be a first of all time. I can’t see it ever, ever being repeated.”
Sam Yoon, president of the Council of Korean Americans, a Virginia group, called the new first lady’s ascendance “a beautiful story.”
Yumi, 57, is a tiny, quiet contrast to her husband, a burly guy with a sometimes-lively personality. Their backgrounds are so dissimilar that they have nearly reinvented the “opposites attract” cliche. Larry is the son of a former congressman, a real estate big shot worth millions. Yumi grew up in a rural area outside Seoul and immigrated to the United States in her 20s with her first husband, the father of her three daughters, to work in blue-collar family businesses.
Living first in Texas and then California, Yumi divorced her husband and moved to Maryland, in Howard County, for the schools. In the Free State, she sought out rural areas that reminded her of home, inspiring her abstract landscapes. But she spent little time on herself. She taught art in her basement and worked as a cashier, trying to provide for her daughters.
“She never spent money on anything,” Sterling said. “She never had free time to do anything. In her mind, her sole job was to raise her children.”
Yumi, who became a U.S. citizen in 1994, was sitting next to Sterling as she spoke, with only the slightest trace of a proud smile on her face.
“This is part of my culture,” she said.
Around 2000, with two of her daughters out of the house, she met Larry. She could not understand why he, as she put it, “chose” her. He could have met women “100 times better than me,” she said. “But I thank God.”
Larry asked her about her dreams. She wanted to get degrees in painting. Though she thought she was too old and still needed to focus on her daughters, Larry persisted. In 2008, she earned a bachelor’s from MICA. Two years later, she received a master’s from American University. Her work, using traditional sumi ink and hanji paper, has been displayed locally and around the world.
In the meantime, Larry became part of the family, taking to Korean culture and family life. At their wedding, Larry donned traditional Korean garb. He refers to Yumi’s daughters as his daughters. They call him Dad. There are photos on Facebook of him walking Sterling down the aisle at her wedding. As for speaking Korean, he can say “hello” and “goodbye” and “I love you,” but not much else.
“I picked up the food really well,” he said.
And she has tried to pick up the politics during appearances with her husband. Not long ago, Yumi spotted a scarf with pink and green elephants at a store on the Eastern Shore. Those aren’t her colors — she prefers bright (ahem) Democratic blue, and she wore blue the night her husband was elected. But the scarf had elephants, the Republican symbol.
“I guess the governor’s wife should have one elephant thing,” she said.
As Yumi bought the scarf, Larry shouted from across the store: “I like your scarf, honey.” She responded: “I guess so.”
Though she’s a political novice, she was an asset at times during the campaign.
On the Eastern Shore, epicenter of the region’s poultry industry, Yumi would often tell workers that she grew up on a chicken farm.
“They just loved that,” Larry said.
She also connected with Asians, who make up an increasingly important population in Maryland politics. The number of Asians jumped 51 percent, to 318,853, between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. They now represent 5.5 percent of the state’s population.
At a parade in Gaithersburg, Larry went up to every Asian woman he saw in the crowd. “There’s my wife,” Larry told one. “She’s from Korea.”
Now she must adjust to a life in politics, where every image is a symbol. At the outdoor inaugural ceremony Wednesday, she wore a blue jacket over a red dress — an aspirational, bipartisan outfit befitting her husband’s campaign theme. (He needs such outfits — and messages — given both the House of Delegates and Senate are controlled by Democrats.)
But politics, partisan or otherwise, aren’t her thing. As she moves from the Hogan family home in Anne Arundel County, she is thinking of ways to incorporate the arts into her role, particularly in children’s education. She hopes to host artists at the mansion. She is also planning to work on social issues, particularly with single mothers, an effort her husband said will be good for the state.
Yumi hopes to cook Korean food at least one night a week in the mansion. And she still plans to teach. Her class on sumi painting at MICA actually began on Inauguration Day. She figured that was a reasonably good excuse for an absence.
But she seems wistful, too, about the move. The family home in Edgewater is surrounded by trees and water, and Larry built her a studio on the top floor, with wide windows for her to absorb the lush green trees and sunlight. The governor’s mansion can’t serve as that kind of retreat.
Still, she’s moving her easels and hopes to find a room to set up a small studio.
“I will need it,” she said.
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.