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Alice Patricia Hsiu-Yun Liu Szema, former teacher whose family fled China, dies

Alice Szema and her engineer husband, Li-Chieh Szema, lived throughout New York, including Mount Sinai and Commack. With multiple degrees, she taught wherever they went.

Alice Szema with her late husband, Li-Chieh, in

Alice Szema with her late husband, Li-Chieh, in an undated photo. Photo Credit: Anthony Szema

A twist of fate may have saved Alice Patricia Hsiu-Yun Liu Szema's life as the teenage girl and her family escaped war-torn China.

She and her parents, Liu Tzu-Liang and Liu Lei Pei-Chen, were scheduled to sail to Taiwan in January 1949 on a ship called the Taiping. Their plans changed and they left China on Dec. 6, 1948, on another ship, the Zhong Shin Ren, said Szema's son, Anthony Szema of East Setauket. His mother and her family safely landed in Taiwan. They later learned the Taiping collided with another vessel on its way to Taiwan and sank, taking the lives of the Taiping's more than 1,500 passengers and crew, he said.

Alice Szema eventually left Taiwan to study in the United States, where she married, worked as a teacher and raised two children. She and her late husband, Li-Chieh Szema, lived briefly in Mount Sinai and Commack to be near their grandchildren.

She died March 2 at Millennium Memory Care in Holmdel, New Jersey, after a series of strokes, Anthony Szema said. He said his mother suffered her first stroke in November at a wake for her husband. She was 85.

“They were that close," he said. "She never had hypertension.”

Alice Szema was born on May 10, 1933, in Shanghai. In Taiwan, she worked at her family's store and, after she was dissuaded from attending medical school, received a bachelor's degree in foreign languages and literature from National Taiwan University in 1955. She worked at a telephone company until she was accepted to Boston College. To pay her airfare, she agreed to be a caretaker for a Boston family.

She moved to New York to finish her degree in sociology at New York University in 1961. During that time, she met Li-Chieh Szema, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. They married on June 6, 1964.

Li-Chieh Szema's engineering career took the family to upstate Endicott and on to Cincinnati. Wherever they went, Alice Szema taught at public and private schools and community colleges, her son said. When her children went to college, she did, too, adding a bachelor's degree in computer science in 1984 from Union College in upstate Schenectady.

Li-Chieh Szema's family had also fled to Taiwan. He came out of retirement to study the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in Belle Harbor, Queens, in 2001, which killed all 260 people on board and five more on the ground.

Education and culture were part of their children's upbringing. Both Anthony Szema and his sister, Katherine Szema of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, are allergists and teachers.

“We had the opportunity to get mentors,” said Anthony Szema, a doctor and clinical associate professor of medicine at Hofstra University. “My parents made sure I had a ride for the 40-minute drive to get there,” referring to the mentor.

He said his mother loved attending the ballet, opera and Broadway shows. At home, she baked treats for friends and family, and she enjoyed gardening, sewing, watercolor painting and ballroom dancing with her husband. They endowed the Szema Yung-Pien Scholarship Award at Stony Brook School of Medicine, a mentoring award at Gettysburg College and a scholarship at Albany Medical College. 

“She let us do whatever we pursued," her son said. “I think that was very beneficial. I’m trying to remember that. I’m trying not to be a tiger dad.”

Besides her children, she is survived by her brother, William Wei-Lin Liu of Northridge, California, and four grandchildren. A private funeral was held March 9 at Thompson Memorial Home in Red Bank, New Jersey. She was cremated.

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