The letter came from Harvard Law School, where Gong had just failed his first-year exams, and it said that he would not be invited back to Harvard. In fact, it said, Gong would “never become a lawyer.”
But he went on to earn a law degree, served as a U.S. attorney and later won an improbable victory to become the first American of Chinese ancestry elected to the Florida state legislature.
The law school episode came after an undergraduate career at Harvard where Gong had encountered—and overcome—academic difficulties.
He had attended Miami Senior High School and by his own account struggled to catch up with his prep-school counterparts when he came to the College.
“There was a natural divide between the high school graduates and the prep-school graduates. They wore their Ivy-League suits, knew how to take notes, and how to study effectively,” he says. “But I caught up soon.”
Although “you simply couldn’t go to a party without a tuxedo,” he says, there was nevertheless a sense of brotherhood in the Class of 1952, irrespective of class or high school background.
“It all came down to what you had in your brain, how you thought,” he says.
Like many incoming college first-years at the time, Gong harbored hopes of becoming a doctor. His parents wanted him to be a missionary in China. But after a year of fulfilling his pre-med requirements, Gong realized that he was more interested in economics and government.
College started as a struggle—in his very first term, he failed almost all his hourly exams and his father came to Cambridge unannounced to lift his spirits.
“Harvard makes it very difficult to flunk out of college,” he says. “I went on to make it to the finish line as the first Gong to go to college.”
Gong says he felt “a certain loneliness” at Harvard because there were so few Asian Americans. But he remembers the help he received along the way. While working at Hong Lo Doy restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, Dean of Freshmen Judson Shaplin came to the restaurant with his wife one Saturday evening to boost his morale and tell him not to worry about his scholarship.
Gong went on to graduate with honors, an achievement he attributes to Samuel P. Huntington, now a famed professor and social scientist but then a government fellow and senior tutor at Kirkland House.
He “touched my life at critical times when I was down and hurting,” Gong says.
“No Sam, no cum laude,” he quips.
After graduating from the College Gong went on to serve in the Air Force for two years as a second lieutenant—having attended college with war veterans who were a “very positive and inspiring”
influence—and after his stint in the Air Force, Gong decided he wanted to become a politician.
He enrolled at Harvard Law School, thinking a legal degree was the first step toward a political career. There he encountered an academic setting less forgiving than the one at the College.
“I didn’t last there long, you know,” he says.
While on vacation in Hong Kong after his first year, Gong received word that he had failed his examinations.
“I was below standard so I wasn’t welcomed back, but they said that I could petition to rejoin,” he says.
But Gong’s petition was rejected, and he soon received a second letter from the law school. This one said he would never be a lawyer because he had flunked out.
“I kept that letter for motivation,” he says. “I was an only son, and I felt I had let my family down.”
After this setback, Gong stayed on in Hong Kong and, as he looked for other means to obtain a law degree, he worked as a freelance journalist with the Hong Kong Tiger Standard.
He married and moved back to the United States. Through personal connections, he found that the University of Miami School of Law would allow him a second chance, unlike most schools, which wouldn’t accept a student who had failed at another institution. He continued with journalism in Miami, too, working as a reporter with the Herald to pay for his education.
This time he did graduate. After just a little over a year of working for a private firm, he was introduced to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ’48, who made him a proposition. Kennedy offered Gong a position with the Justice Department in Washington, but he turned the opportunity down.
“I had a family, and we weren’t a wealthy family. I had four kids, needed a big house, and things wouldn’t work out in Washington,” he says. “I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t want separation.”
Kennedy appointed him assistant U.S. attorney, which allowed him to remain in Miami, but even though he stayed, Gong still had to sacrifice time with his family for his budding political career.
“I was a prosecutor in Miami, but I was attracted to running for office so that I could challenge the norm and prove that the American dream was really true and that anyone could make it,” he says.
He did prove himself. Gong was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives from Dade County in 1963 in an election that, he recalls, many had said he “didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance of winning.”
He went on to win election to the Florida State Senate in 1966 before returning to his law practice six years later.
“My political career was an experience in which I felt a lot of eyes were watching me,” he says, “but there was lots of goodwill.”
As the only minority representative in the state house at the time, Gong remembers that many of his colleagues were not used to working with a person of Chinese ancestry. But he says he never felt alienated or left out.
“I was never lonely,” he says. “I was part of the system.”
—Staff writer Ravi P. Agrawal can be reached at email@example.com.