Monday, June 18, 2007

To My Friend Lee: Goodbye

As children, many of us built imaginary friends with whom we’d share our victories and defeats.

As adults, we hold our lifetime best friendships—those dating from decades earlier, from grade school, high school, college or early work life—as we might store statuettes, safely tucked away in the cabinets of our minds. We remove them from their mental shelves in times of worry, times of joy, days of sadness or nights of nostalgia. We revolve those friendships in our imaginations, letting the mirrored light reflect our experience of today through their prisms of earlier years.

Friendship with Lee was nothing like that at all. To Lee, friendships were not museum pieces, setting on shelves. Lee built friendships, he maintained them, he fixed them and Lee delighted in them.

Pilot, salesman, mechanic.

Varmint hunter, long-range precision shooter, tinkerer, trader.

Husband, father, friend and teacher.

In every facet of his life, in every endeavor to which he gave his attention, he was the best he could be, and that was always very, very good indeed.

A part of Lee’s magic was his insistence on building life, not merely living it. Each phase relied upon and improved upon its predecessor. For a man not terribly enthusiastic about school in his younger years, through hard study in later life he made certain he knew more about his subjects than anyone else. It was important to him that he was expert, not for others, not for ranking, but so that he would know that he knew all there was to know about what was important.

He was constantly trading up, he improved his airframe & engine license with multiple pilots licenses. He could fly and fix anything in the air, and that gave him the confidence to instill confidence in all who trusted him, whether with millions of dollars once in a while, or on a daily basis with their lives as they launched into the sky.

He taught himself to sell by helping others solve their problems rather than by pushing a product, a technique and value that he never left behind.

In later years, Lee returned to long-range precision shooting, an early enthusiasm. Long-range precision shooting is a little like golf, the goal is to put “the ball” into the hole at ranges between 100 and 600 yards. One difference with golf, though, is that to qualify for competition every shot, every single step up to the line, needs to be a hole in one. In Lee’s kind of shooting, there are no par-threes, fours or even twos. Either put it into the same hole from a quarter mile away on a windy day, or practice until you can. Lee practiced and practiced and became good enough to compete regularly against nationally ranked shooters.

Lee tinkered and traded, whether the booty was binoculars or rifles, autopilots or airframes. He always traded up, but other guy always got a good deal.

The one area where Lee started at the top was when he convinced his high school sweetheart to be his lifelong partner. Barbara was his complement, his best friend, his fellow traveler sharing all of life’s beautiful vistas and its tough rows. He never lost sight of the reality that he got the better deal; trading up was just not possible.

Their boys, Rick, Rob and Tom, have been for all their lives the twinkle in their father’s eyes. He was, in every way and on every day, proud of the men they had become. Lee was a humble man, but when he spoke of his sons, he let show a little of his pride in his contribution to their lives.

Lee lived a life of which others can only dream. He saw everything worth seeing in this country, and many sights beyond her borders, too. He met important and influential people by the bushel-basket load, people who recognized him for his judgment, who trusted him when he said “yes” and respected when he told them “no.”

He called a few days ago. With the coughing, a call had become rare. He mentioned enjoying with his boys a letter written by a friend. Interrupted by his cough, he put Barbara on the line. He came back on after a minute or two to make the point that I think he had called about. His stockbroker had commented in particular on a few words, a paragraph, that the stockbroker felt described Lee best. I think Lee agreed, and that he wanted others to know that of which he was especially proud. Those words:

“Your sense of care and concern and professionalism melded into service to others, professionally, socially, charitably. As a pilot, you didn’t differentiate between CEO and stockboy, superstar and secretary. In fact, you were probably a bit more considerate of those for whom flight was a unique adventure, ever willing to see the amazing world of aviation through their eyes. That same approach translated into the other aspects of your life. You simply cannot force yourself to be rude, thoughtless or uncaring towards others, whether friends or strangers.”
Those Lee met, he taught. He taught them how to fix an oil pump, a flight plan, a friendship, a marriage, a life.

He asked a month ago whether I thought of him as a mentor. “No,” I said, “mentor doesn’t begin to cover it.”

So, Lee, from all your friends gathered around now and those scattered across the miles and the decades, from all those who didn’t make it plain enough before:
I thank you for the lessons
And your stories of the road.

I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go.

I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough.

And, Lee, I don’t think I said
“I love you” near enough.
On Fathers' Day, Lee died at home as he wished, surrounded by his family.

Related Links: To My Friend Lee, "Thank You"
Thanks to Dan Fogelberg


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Chris. This is beautiful and I cannot read it without tears.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing so eloquently about your close friendship with Lee. Your words are extremely comforting to his family....

I will always remember the first time I met Lee. I had been struck by the mutual respect between father and son (as Tom was with his father at the time) and I immediately felt their close bond. I also was keenly aware of Lee's warmth and genuine interest in people. I would come to realize throughout the years that this was truly Lee and this wonderful quality shone through in his interactions with everyone.

The years after this first meeting have been enormously fulfilling and I have wonderful memories to cherish...