Charlie Lee: Between the Lines
Charlie’s neighbors had a cat that loved to lounge on his pristine property. He named the cat “Go Away!” Two weeks after the neighbors relocated to Georgetown, Go Away took a 10 to 15 mile walk back to Charlie’s doorstep, having intuited that if someone feeds you he may not really want you to go away.
My personal reflections are an attempt to capture quintessential Charlie and to catch up with the depth of perception displayed by a cat. First impressions: Charlie was a casually dressed, fit man, his Polo shirt neatly tucked into jeans or shorts; his palate limited to salmon or scallops with potatoes and a salad. A casual drinker, he sipped Absolut and tonic with lemon, drove a meticulously kept Acura, and lived in a home, he designed, and serially redesigned or improved, with software purchased for $49.95.
Charlie was an accountant, seen as most comfortable with data and a spread sheet that balanced. But to my mind, paradoxically, he was an aesthete with an intellectual bent. An avid reader of The New Yorker, for which you need an accompanying dictionary, he had a burning passion for the arts and for expanding his art glass collection. Classical music or opera was always in the background at home or in the car. Social issues often dominated our conversations.
On one notable visit to Florida, at Charlie’s suggestion, we visited every booth at the ArtPalmBeach festival, hiked through the Chihuly art glass exhibit at Fairchild Botanic Gardens, examined artifacts at the King Tut exhibit, and attended a concert by his favorite lyric soprano, Renee Fleming. Having lived in the heart of Philly’s cultural center during his career years, Charlie was nostalgic about the city, if not the traffic, where we met for dinner and a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Kingston Grill, a French influenced restaurant in Bethany Beach, was our favorite restaurant for birthdays and New Year’s Eve, where, inexplicably, Charlie’s palate and taste for drinks that bubble was enhanced.
In spite of his love of order, Charlie was able to go against type, tolerating controlled chaos in the service of achieving his desired goals. While his home at Red Fox Run was being built he rented a house nearby. Although construction dragged on and the sound of rain on the tin roof made Charlie so stressed he was dizzy, holding onto the walls for support, he held on until everything on his punch list was remedied. He demonstrated unexpected flexibility by going to the Boardwalk with my grandchildren until the din at the Funland rides drove him away. Generous to a flaw, he treated every family member I brought to dinner, only asking for the place and time, and opened his home to the Balatti/Gilmer catering company to celebrate my birthday. At his dinner parties, cooking and cleanup were all on him, with a little help from Big Fish. I knew from the start I wanted to know him better when he welcomed Barb and me, relative strangers, as overnight guests, with continental breakfast, to his home in Brigantine, NJ.
Communication, in our long distance relationship, could be a challenge. Charlie didn’t text, wrote occasional, brief emails, disliked long phone conversations, and was even known to criticize the length of voice messages on his answering machine. Conversely, he was always up for face to face dinners of two hours or more, where he loved to talk and laugh at life’s foibles. Surprisingly, he accommodated to the inevitability of my occasional hello and goodbye embraces, but it was more difficult for him on the phone or in person to respond to, “I love you Charlie. I wish you lived closer to me.” When he was in the hospital he reiterated his profound shock at the number of people who had responded to his illness and the depth of their caring, including those in his family and inner circle of friends. He kept repeating that he didn’t know so many people cared so much. When I stood by his bed to say goodbye he said, “You can touch me.” and when I said, “I love you Charlie” he responded in kind. Face to face was always more his style.
Rejecting any affiliation with organized religion, Charlie lived by a code of ethics that included: hard work, dignity, humility, promptness, reliability, honesty, order, generosity, philanthropy, paying it forward, doing the right thing (even when it was not reciprocated) and answering to your conscience. Forgive me Charlie, but it sounds Biblical to me. It comes as no surprise that he applied this code as a rubric by which to measure others. The obvious outcome of which was we sometimes failed, as did society and its institutions. All of which made Charlie lose patience, but never made him give up.
He undertook herculean tasks, from which others would run, had relationships with difficult people, like me, and tenaciously returned to fight for what he believed in. A short time after I introduced him to Maggie (Ottato), we began our trips to Bethany to pick up Sundance auction items, setting him off on a path to the million dollar membership program he envisioned and built one dollar at a time for CAMP Rehoboth.
Now and then, I listened as Charlie vented his frustration and disappointment about people or situations. He would usually conclude that the unrelenting stress was going to force him to back off or give up. But in consultation with his conscience, he would wake up and try again. At a loss to understand this cycle, I once had the temerity to ask, “Charlie, then why, why do you do it?” And he answered, “Because there wasn’t anybody else.” Indeed!
My pulse races merely imagining my next drive to Rehoboth. “Hello, Charlie. It’s Lois. I’m coming down for a few days. How about dinner Friday or Saturday” (Click).
Since 2005, Charlie Lee worked as a full-time volunteer at CAMP Rehoboth with responsibility for managing the CAMP Rehoboth Membership Campaign. A Celebration of Charlie’s Life will be held Sunday, June 7 at 2 p.m. at Epworth United Methodist Church immediately followed by a reception at the CAMP Rehoboth Community Center, 37 Baltimore Avenue in Rehoboth Beach.