When I was in middle school, my mom received a delightful invitation one day from a family friend. Richard Lee was going to be consulting on a case for the Buffalo Zoo; there was a newborn giraffe who had something wrong with one of its four stomachs (fun fact: giraffes have four stomachs!), and he thought maybe I would like to tag along. I’m not sure what made him think of me. Maybe he knew I needed a small infusion of whimsy in my life. But I do know that, because of Dick Lee, I ended up in a cage with the most amazing animal I’ve ever had the opportunity to touch, getting licked by its enormous sticky purple tongue.
I remember thinking, at the time, “Why is Dr. Lee working at the zoo?” I was under the impression that he was an OB-GYN. I’d been to his office at Children’s Hospital. But it turned out that Dick Lee had a resume longer than my arm. According to this exhaustive interview, he was Director of Medical Clinics and the Primary Care Center at Yale, as well as chief of General Medicine. Then he was vice-chairman of the Department of Medicine at SUNY Buffalo, while also chief of medical services at the VA. Then he became head of the Department of Medicine at Children’s Hospital, Chief of Maternal and Adolescent Medicine and the Division of Geographic Medicine at UB, professor of anthropology, professor of social and preventative medicine, professor of pediatrics, chief medical officer at the WHO Center for Wealth in Housing, medical director of something called Ecology and Environment, Inc., and, yes, consultant in Internal Medicine at the Buffalo Zoological Society. He was also one of the smartest, funniest, kindest and most captivating human beings I have ever had the immeasurable pleasure to know.
And yesterday, he died of a heart attack.
I was talking to a friend recently about how ages that seemed old when we were children don’t seem old now. Obviously this is mainly due to a change in perspective as you yourself age, but I think it’s also due to men like Dick Lee. When I told my husband that my parents’ friend had died, out of the blue, he asked how old Dick had been. I told him 75 or 76, something like that. “Well, then it wasn’t REALLY out of the blue. I mean, he was 75.” But Dick somehow seemed ageless. I hadn’t seen him a couple years, I suppose, but the last time I did see him he was as vibrant and vital as he had ever been in all the time I knew him.
I met Dick when I was 7. I had already known of his son, Ben, who was a year ahead of my sister in school and had given indelible performances in their productions of M*A*S*H, The Music Man, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Ben was always much nicer than he really had to be to the kid who showed up backstage at her sister’s plays and gazed at him in awe. But then I met Ben’s parents and realize that he simply came from very very good stock.
My dad got to know Dick when he helped facilitate an exchange program between Nichols and a boarding school called Loretto, in Scotland, which Dick had attended briefly as a teenager. The teacher who came to Buffalo from Loretto, Peter Wood, became a great friend and colleague to my father, and he began coming to dinners at our house. Soon, Dick and Susan Lee began coming along. And that summer, we were invited to our first of many gatherings at the Lees’ house.
The Lees lived out in the country, on an expansive property called Many Barn Farm. The name was apt. As a kid, my favorite barn was, understandably, the stable, where they rented out stalls, and where I took one of the two horseback rides I’ve ever gone on in my life. (Both were before the age of 10. It’s been a slow 20 years, horse-wise.) Another barn was converted in the ‘90s into a guest house and library. I remember Dick and Susan being very eager to show off the renovations to my parents and me once they were complete. They envisioned holding salons there, gatherings on cold winter nights in the large library loft with a selection of the most interesting people Buffalo had to offer, where they could trade ideas and drink wine.
But every party at the Lees’ house was essentially a salon. A salon with swimming, and volleyball, and kebobs. Dick had, over the years, curated a collection of friends who were smart and funny and very occasionally skirted the line of pretentiousness, but regardless a fabulous array of individuals for me to be exposed to at a young age. I didn’t really appreciate that exposure until I was quite a bit older. When I was young, I used to spend much of the time at their parties exploring the house, which was crammed to the rafters with books and papers and maps and globes and relics and an enormous tiger skin rug that I would lie on and read the old magazines (mainly Harvard Lampoons, if I recall correctly) that I had scavenged out of his older son’s bedroom, because the actual books in the house were all too intimidating for me to touch. Dick Lee seemed to ingest information whole, absorb it through his skin. He knew everything and somehow wanted to learn more. He was among the most well-read people I have ever met.
He was also one of the kindest, and almost certainly the most benevolent. He spent his summers for years and years taking students as young as 14 on medical treks to Ladakh, a remote mountainous area in Kashmir, where they would help treat infections, administer vaccines, and care for pregnant women and their children. He apparently took similar trips to Brazil and Kenya. He spent much of his residency in rural Montana, doing housecalls for families in the middle of nowhere and then working on a reservation. He managed to combine his drive for adventure and thirst for knowledge with a relentless do-goodery that touched thousands of patients over 50 years of practice.
And he somehow managed to take the time out three months ago to respond almost immediately when I sent him an email about my health concerns. He provided some clarification about auto-antibody tests and reassured me that it was certainly possible to have positive results on those tests and never develop full-blown symptoms of lupus or Sjogren’s. (He also followed up with my mother a few weeks ago to see if I’d gotten any answers from my rheumatologist visit, and just to express general concern.) I look at our email correspondence and feel, as my mom put it yesterday, bereft. It doesn’t make sense. How could he have just been here, and then, in a moment, gone? I listened to a radio interview last night that he and Ben did a couple years back, discussing his discovery of their hidden Chinese heritage, and I just smiled hearing his voice. His voice that was alternately calm, clear and wise, or else boisterous, rollicking, Shakespearean. I can’t imagine never hearing it again. The world is richer for him having been here, and poorer now that he is gone.