Wen Ping Pan was arguably the fastest man in China in 1912. Also among the nation’s best tennis players, he had his pick between competing in the Olympics against Jim Thorpe or playing in the esteemed Davis Cup tennis tournament.
Ultimately, he did neither.
Geopolitical change would radically alter this young man’s life, most of it spent in the Mesabi Iron Range town of Hibbing.
In Hibbing, Pan served the Oliver Mining Company as an engineer, helping plan the city’s move to the south in 1922. He won the Hibbing Tennis Club title so often in the 1920s and ‘30s that the newspaper ran out of ways to describe his skill. Like many immigrants of his generation, Pan’s peaceful, prosperous life in America stands as a testament to the power of a welcoming community.
By 1900, Pan’s Christian family had moved to Shanghai from Beijing. He was almost 6. That was fortunate, because in the north the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreigner uprising, would claim the life of several of Pan’s relatives.
On Jun. 28, 1900, his grandfather Chen Ta-Yung, a Chinese Christian who had become a prominent Methodist minister, was suddenly beheaded in a village square for refusing to worship idols. Chen’s wife and two youngest children were forced to watch and then were executed themselves.
With the help of foreign powers, the Boxer Rebellion was put down. However, just a year or two later, Pan’s father Dr. C.C. Pan, would die from an infection after suffering a puncture wound while treating a patient. His part-Irish mother, Mary, would raise her four children on her own.
Later, the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China and established the Chinese Republic. The Pan family was part of a relatively wealthy, progressive, well-connected Christian minority in China. Accordingly, Mary encouraged elite American educations for her children.
That’s how in 1914 Wen Ping Pan became the first Chinese student at the University of Minnesota, at the recommendation of his American chemistry teacher back in China. Pan convinced his older brother, Wen Hua Pan, and best friend, Harding Kwong, to join him at the university. There, Wen Ping studied chemistry and later engineering. He would also became a successful college athlete, helping organize and later starring on the university’s first soccer team.
Pan and his friends started a Chinese club at the UofM, where he would meet his wife, Mae Humm, who, like Pan’s mother, was half-Irish and half-Chinese. Wen Ping’s grandson, Dr. Larry Pan of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., said his grandfather was quiet, patient and thoughtful, while his grandmother retained Chinese features but a distinctly Irish temper and talent for gab. As a result, she did most of the talking in their 63-year marriage.
In 1918, Pan took a summer job working for the Oliver Mining Company in Hibbing, then a boom town on the edge of the Northern Minnesota wilderness. Larry Pan said that he found it to be a land of hard working immigrants like him, people of many nations and creeds working together.
It left enough of an impression that Pan would return to work for the Oliver full time in 1920.
In Hibbing he went as W.P. Pan, or “William” to the Americans he came to befriend. Early in his tenure with the Oliver, Pan would be assigned an important job — platting the streets in “New South Hibbing.”
The company paid for the entire city of Hibbing to be moved 2 miles to the south to access rich reserves of iron ore. But Pan’s job didn’t end with the street plans.
“People weren’t happy about having to move,” said Dr. Larry Pan of Marquette University in Milwaukee, grandson of W.P. Pan. “Because of his calm nature and demeanor, [the Oliver] would send all the complaints to him. Now, he was an engineer, not a customer service representative. But he never got emotional or angry with anyone, including all these angry people who were going to sue the company.”
So for a full year, Pan’s job was to satisfy the complaints of Hibbing townsfolk to help reduce legal costs for the company. One assumes that part of his work was to keep the complaints from catching the ear of legendary Hibbing Mayor Victor Power, an attorney who made his name suing the Oliver for just such reasons.
Like his friend and brother, Pan planned to return to China after gaining experience in Minnesota. However, he learned from relatives that political disputes back home kept people with American training from getting work.
Further, Pan’s wife Mae didn’t speak Chinese. Gradually, the Pans came to love Hibbing and decided to stay. Later, when the government changed, his family asked he move back, but he refused.
“My grandfather really didn’t like the corruption in the Chinese government, or all the family politics and connections,” said Larry Pan. “My dad [Harding Pan] was 14 when his aunt [Pan’s sister, Nyok Mei Chen] came for a visit. His aunt asked his dad to go buy her some high-end automobile and ship it back to China for her. [W.P. Pan] gave her a look that my dad always remembered. The family thought he was rich. Because my grandfather was the head of the Republican Party in Hibbing, though living a modest life, the family kept writing asking for money. It drove a wedge in the family.”
The Depression was hard. Pan was demoted to night watchman when mining operations idled. But before long he was back in the engineering office.
Eventually, the Pans ended up in a nice middle class house on Seventh Street across the street from the high school, just two blocks from a young Bob Dylan’s home. They had one son, Harding Pan.
Despite being one of very few Chinese people to live in Hibbing, Larry Pan said the family saw the town as open and friendly at that time, probably due to the vast number of other immigrants living there. Their son Harding would be elected student council president at Hibbing High School and attend Hibbing Junior College.
“My dad, Harding Pan, said that he went all through high school without feeling different from his fellow students,” said Larry Pan. “I can say that was definitely true when I visited there. If anything, the community seemed to have great respect for my grandparents.”
The Pans became a blue star family when Harding enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II.
W.P. Pan kept up his athletic pursuits well into middle age, though more casually. A story in the Aug. 31, 1936, Hibbing Daily Tribune began: “W.P. Pan has won the men’s singles tennis title so many times here that it is mere commonplace to say that he won it again Saturday.”
In the 1950s, the tennis courts at the middle school were named for Pan.
Pan worked a full career at the Oliver, retiring after 40 years in 1959. The company threw him a big party at the Elks Club in Hibbing. Legendary Iron Range newspaperwoman Veda Ponikvar marked the occasion in an editorial the following week:
“… By his manner, his deep understanding and his humble, unobtrusive attitude, he gained the respect of his fellow colleagues and the competing athletic opponents,” she wrote. “Mr. Pan loved the American way of life … he believed in the land he had chosen for his home … and he lived each day as if it were a precious jasmine blossom. He was that kind of man … everything he did, he did extremely well.”
W.P. Pan spoke at his retirement party about the progress of the mining industry during his time in the field. He emphasized that no nation can survive without progress.
But he concluded his remarks this way, as quoted in the Nov. 3, 1959, Chisholm Tribune Press:
+“It is not the progress that matters to me so much as the human relationships on the Iron Range, the mixture of many creeds and nationalities. Tonight, I am crossing another milestone in my life.”
Pan died Oct. 20, 1981, in Minneapolis. He was 86.
Dr. Larry Pan’s exhaustive and well-written family history, along with our conversation on Feb. 2, 2017, supplied most of the information for this piece. Thanks are also due to Dr. Ann Waltner, professor of Chinese history at the University of Minnesota, for connecting me with Pan, and also for her fascinating 2013 lecture about the first Chinese students at the university which you can view online.
This story arose out of idle curiosity about a “Years of Yore” column by Jack Lynch, which cited a July 14, 1939, story about Pan’s well-connected sister visiting from China. I wanted to know more about the only Chinese man working for the Oliver. While it took more than a year, I was so glad to finally learn the rest of the story.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).