By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
—Mrs. Beverly Ryan
Delray Beach, Florida
(Photo by Charles Sugimura)
A Big Appetite
Yung Portugal, 1961-2002
BY SARA CATANIA
SHE WAS DELICATE — "LIKE AN ORCHID" — but an orchid who loved to box. A reserved mother of two who kept to herself but preferred a bear hug to a handshake. A deeply religious woman who once fantasized about joining a rock band.
Yung Portugal, the 41-year-old controller for the L.A. Weeklyand O.C. Weekly, embodied these seemingly contradictory traits. But perhaps most confounding was the image of her strong, athletic self felled by the liver cancer that caused her death on Christmas Eve. "It's hard to believe someone you've been with nearly half your life is no longer here," said Yung's husband, Jim Portugal, who first met her nearly 20 years ago.
On Saturday, the Fullerton Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where she sang in the choir, held a memorial service. "She's resting now," read a passage from the service program, "with no pain or suffering."
Yung's influence on the two weekly newspapers began as soon as she was hired, about two years ago. "Before Yung we had gone through four controllers in five years," said Lynne Foland, vice president, human resources, for Village Voice Media, which owns the weeklies. "We were in chaos. Yung had this very calm, mature demeanor. She really helped turn the department around."
In the days after Yung's death, friends, family and co-workers remembered her gracious charm, her spirituality and her big appetite. Inevitably, when talking about Yung, the subject comes around to food. Food as an entrée into romance and friendship. Food as an expression of gratitude and a source of comfort. By all accounts, Yung, who moved to Chicago from Seoul in 1970 with her parents and six siblings, was a voracious eater, embracing both quantity and variety in her gustatory adventures.
The courtship with Jim Portugal began over a series of lunches when the two were working together at their first accounting jobs, for Wrigley, the giant gum maker, in Chicago. Jim was impressed with Yung's appetite and described her to his family as "the girl who likes to eat a lot." She would often prepare chop chae, a traditional Korean dish, for family and friends, and her marinades were a perennial favorite on the barbecue circuit. Former L.A. Weekly publisher Michael Sigman, who hired Yung and called her "one of my favorite employees," remembered a lunch meeting with Yung at Musso & Frank. He had a mineral water and a sandwich. Yung ordered a black Russian and an enormous plate of chicken cacciatore.
Lynne Foland says it was Yung who got her into sushi. "We would go out and she would always get me to try these very strange and interesting things," Lynne said. Over lunch one day, Yung persuaded Lynne to take up boxing, and the two would often go to the gym together after work, hitting the bags with gusto. "Yung was really proud of her boxing," Lynne said. "She was always practicing her punches."
Shortly after Yung went on sick leave in June, Charles Sugimura, who worked with her in the accounting department and had helped organize a surprise birthday party for her at the office the month before, went to her house to drop off her mail. She had prepared a roast chicken and invited him to stay. He declined, explaining that he was on his way home to dinner. She placed a plate of food in front of him anyway. "You better eat that," she said. He did.
Even before Yung got sick, Charles and other employees in the accounting department took a protective interest in their boss, whose black Acura was often the first car in the Weekly lot each morning and the last remaining at night. "We all felt that she was shouldering too much of the work herself," he said. "The goal was to help her so she could get home earlier to her kids and her husband." Soon Yung started leaving earlier. When she did have to stay late, she would turn on her speakerphone so she could listen to her sons, 11-year-old Stephen and 8-year-old Bryan, as they practiced the piano and clarinet.
"She worked hard, and she was so committed, she made everyone else want to work hard too," said Becky Leasure, credit and collections manager. Once Yung told Becky that as a girl she had dreamed of joining a rock band. "It was the last thing you would think, this little Korean girl in a rock band," Becky said. "But that was Yung. Always coming up with something that would surprise you."
Later, when Yung got sick, her staff rallied around her. "Yung reminded me of an orchid, she had such a beautiful personality and she always handled things in a very delicate manner," said Myra Henry, the Weekly's cashier. "When she started having back problems, we would talk about home remedies to try and help the pain or special teas and herbs to drink. She would laugh, but say she would try them anyway."
After Yung left the Weekly, many employees kept in touch, but after Thanksgiving, phone calls went unanswered. Then, on Christmas Eve, Charles said, days before he was informed of Yung's death, he was overcome by the urge to go to midnight Mass. "I hadn't been to church in 20 years," he said. "I'm not even Catholic." Once the Mass began, his thoughts went to Yung. "I said a prayer for her. She was so much with the church and God. Maybe she somehow made me go."