“Mr. Lee.” That’s what I called him. Sometimes I referred to him as “Lorin’s Dad,” and I’m sure there were a few other names I called him growing up, all indicating formal names or titles of authority. That was, after all, how I knew him. He was the father of my best friend.
My memories of him, when I was young, were many, yet short. He was always busy with something, but he always seemed happy. He would interact with us often, but not necessarily “play” with us. I recall him sitting on the sofa, watching his college hoops and drinking what seemed to be copious amounts of Pepsi. Then again, when we were kids, Pepsi was a drink kids were not to have because of the caffeine, so any amount would seem excessive to us. My recollection was that he watched the Lakers, but later he assured me that he was watching UCLA Basketball. It was a while ago, so let’s just leave it at that. I’d bet money that he was right and I was wrong.
Mr. Lee was the son of missionaries. When I met him, he was a teacher at the academy; that place “up the hill” from the elementary school I attended where all the “grown” kids went.
Despite being a teacher for older kids, it seemed that he was always teaching wherever he went. I don’t know that it was with intent or purpose so much as it was just innately him. It was part of who he was. One of my great memories was learning about angles, force, and some other physics through a game called Carom, which Lorin and I played by the hour. Carom is a game played on a board with round rings which you try to “shoot” into pockets, similar to billiards. Watching Mr. Lee drop carom after carom into the various pockets, making trick shots was always fun and I know my game was only better for it. As a result, to this day, we have a Carom board in our house and it has become a family favorite.
Another thing I learned from him was how to do tricks with a Yo-Yo. Mr. Lee taught me things like “Around the World,” “Walk the Dog” and some other things that would amaze and amuse my friends. Many are tricks I have taught my kids, or at the very least shown off.
Mr. Lee could juggle as well. I never did learn quite how to do that (at least not well), but it was always entertaining to provide him with a few balls and watch him go to town. Entertaining while teaching always seemed to be important to him and it simply made it that much more engaging.
When the Lee family moved to Shawnee Mission, Kansas, I got to go with them. Even with all of the headaches of moving, Mr. Lee showed his sense of humor when he picked us up at the airport and drove us to a run down house and simply said, “here we are!” Of course, the real new home was beautiful and was possibly the biggest house I’d ever stayed in up until that point in my life. I don’t remember how long I was there, and I don’t remember seeing him much. I knew he had taken a new position at the hospital, but didn’t know what it was.
A year or two later, I got to spend a couple of weeks with the Lees in Shawnee Mission again. While fun and games was the plan, it wasn’t in the cards. It was that summer that Lorin was diagnosed with Diabetes. My time with the Lees that summer was spent in the hospital, daily, while Lorin went through recovery and education about this new affliction which would be with him his whole life. The hospital staff was kind enough to look the other way when it came to visiting hours, so I was able to go there in the mornings and spend the whole day there with him.
At the end of the day, I would go to Mr. Lee’s office and wait for him to finish work. When he was done, we would ride home together. Going to his office, I was introduced to a term I had never heard before: “Public Relations.” In all honesty, I had no idea what it was. I just remember seeing a sign at the doorway to his office that said, “Public Relations.” I am not sure why, exactly, but the term piqued my interest. Of course, we didn’t have the internet back then, so I couldn’t exactly go home and google it, but from then on, whenever I saw a news story where there was a spokesperson for an organization, I’d see the caption, “Public Relations,” and was able to put two and two together as to what it meant. As I began to understand what it was, I became more and more fascinated with it. The idea of being able to craft your message and disseminate it to the public, to have some influence upon their perception of your organization’s brand seemed pretty amazing to me.
I never saw exactly what Mr. Lee did, and I never spoke to him about it back then, but I know that it was definitely the catalyst for me to study the concept from then to current day. And it has served me well, as a result.
On the drives home every night, Mr. Lee and I did not talk much. I know he was tired and liked to unwind. I remember, though, that he loved to crank up his classical music in that great big Suburban of theirs and immerse himself. When you’re an adolescent, you go through changes, but down deep, you still look for ways to relate to other generations despite also learning to be more independent. I remember several times, if the piece of music was particularly dramatic, Mr. Lee would become really animated. It was during this time, a time when I was more interested in listening to artists like Billy Squire, Aerosmith and other rock bands, that I realized that you can rock out to classical music, too. Our musical tastes may have been different but the way we enjoyed our tastes was the same.
After that summer, it would be years before I would see him again. I flew out to stand up for Lorin in his wedding. I stayed with the Lees but did not see Mr. Lee much. It was a whirlwind trip and there was a lot going on.
Once again, years later, when I was a young man, trying to make it in the business world, married and trying to figure “adulting” out, Lorin was in California for a few days and I got to see Mr. Lee one time. He asked me several questions about my business and showed his typical genuine enthusiasm for what was going on in my life. Things had changed, however. He no longer treated me as a child, but a little more like a contemporary. I knew then that the way he saw me had changed.
That trip out to California was the last time I would see any of the Lee family until after Lorin passed.
Upon hearing of Lorin’s death, I knew I needed to rekindle my relationship with the Lee family. I had let too much time go by and let “life” get in the way of so many of the important things; a habit I have yet to break, unfortunately. I contacted Fred and Aura and within a few short weeks, was visiting them for several days in their beautiful condo.
I was picked up at the airport and suddenly, it was as if no time had passed. We had all grown and aged, and we certainly had life experiences to share. But our connection was still there. It was during this time, between then and now, that I was lucky enough to have gotten the opportunity to really get to know Fred. Not only did we reminisce about Lorin but we talked about things from philosophy to religion to politics to our lives and experiences. I got to help Fred and Aura decorate their Christmas tree and put together a little elf scene which Fred was particularly fond of. I was regaled with stories of college life with him, Bruce and Charles. I got to see a side of Fred that I had not known before. No longer was Fred a man I respected because of his position of authority within my life. Fred was my friend. Our bond had evolved and matured.
Since that trip, I have always made it a point to visit often. If there was a conference in Florida, I would see to it that I would be there; not so much for the conference, but for an excuse to see Fred and Aura. I watched as Fred was diagnosed the first time, went through surgery and recovery. I interacted after the second tumor was discovered. I was honored to have been included in on discussions for treatment, and life decisions. During this time, I realized that one of his great strengths was that he would treat others’ opinions and perspectives as importantly as his own. No matter the topic. No matter the viewpoint. No matter how diametrically opposed that viewpoint might be to his, he always treated it with respect, pondered the viewpoint and even, at times, changed his own.
When around Fred, I always felt as though I was part of the inner sanctum. But that was the magic of Fred; his super power, if you will. If you were a part of Fred’s life, he had this ability to make you feel like you were part of his circle. I don’t think it was a conscious choice, it was just the way he was wired; and I know that as a result, everyone who knew him felt special just for knowing him.
Two weeks ago, I had a conference in Miami. Having been kept up to date on Fred, I decided that I would fly into Orlando so I could see he and Aura and spend some time with them. I came in two days early and, once again, was welcomed with open arms. Fred had gotten worse since the last time I had seen him, just a few months before, but I was able to sit with him, show him photos of my family which, despite his condition, still brought a smile to his face. I fed him fruit and we talked as much as he was able. I left that Friday for my conference, feeling that this time would be the last time; knowing I had made the right decision to fly into Orlando, despite the eight-hour round trip drive to and from Miami.
On that Sunday, when driving back after the conference, I looked to the West as the sun was going down. It was a beautiful sunset, and I remember thinking to myself that it would not likely be the only sunset that day; that the sunset of an amazing man; a man I got to call “my friend” was upon us. I pulled into the Oasis along the turnpike and watched and reflected as the sun went down. It was not long after that that the email arrived. Fred was gone. The sun had gone down and the world became just a little bit darker.
So now, as I think about celebrating Fred’s life, I think that there is so much more than that. I have spoken to so many who took classes from him at the Academy. I’ve spoken to people who have read his book and believe that it was a book that changed their lives and the way they handle the patient experience. I’ve spoken to a few of his friends, and I think to myself that Fred was so giving, so generous, so loving, that he has become a part of all of us who got to know him in any way, and as a result, we are not only celebrating the life he lived, but our own lives as well.
So, thank you, Fred. For everything. You may be gone, but the dragon has not won.