"I've been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs. I've made some bad rhymes. I've acted out my life in stages with ten thousand people watching. But we're alone now and I'm singing this song to you." — Leon Russell, ‘A Song For You.’
I first met Lee Williams back in 1982 at The White Buffalo Café, the coffeehouse Linda and I operated at 7th and Broadway in Pittsburg, but really got to know him intimately because of our shared love of song.
It happened at Sunset Manor (now Medicalodges) nursing home in Frontenac at the weekly sing-a-long with the residents. He started coming to sing with resident Juanita Cooper, an old friend from Mindenmines where Juanita was once postmaster and they’d harmonize old tunes together when Lee stopped by to pick up his mail.
I was already a regular at the weekly hootenanny, as were Alfred Basel and Juanita’s daughters, Terry and Billie. By the time our songfest was halted in March because of coronavirus, Judy Garner was a regular, as were Terry’s friends, Paulette Castagno and Peggy Baker.
Juanita, Alfred and I had started when we had family members in residence and continued after they died because of the magic we felt there. That same magic brought Terry and Lee back after Juanita died three years ago. The residents felt it too. You could see the little spark in their eyes as they mouthed the words and moved to the rhythm of the songs — or laughed headlong at some of our antics.
It wasn’t only the singing, it was the pure fun of it all. We danced. We joked. We taunted one another. We were unabashedly joyful and silly.
Because we haven’t been able to get together since March, we’ve all been pretty depressed about missing our weekly fix. But when Lee died on August 6th, we descended beyond depression … into great sadness.
Lee was an intelligent, compassionate, witty, theatrical man who knew how to hold a resident’s hand to comfort them or deliver a droll aside — along with a impish grin and theatrical gesture — to entertain them.
Terry told me that if Lee spied her and her mother at Walmart, he’d sneak one aisle over and burst into song. Her mother’s eyes would twinkle with recognition, she would smile and begin to sing along in perfect harmony … and then they’d meet at the end of the aisle for a big finish.
As time went on Lee started playing dress-up at the sing-a-longs, especially on holidays. He’d come as a green-robed leprechaun on St. Patty’s Day and dress in red on St. Valentine’s Day. Once he got a spiky haircut and did Rod Stewart impressions.
He was also prone to get up and march on songs like "It’s A Grand Ole Flag" and act out the words on "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." And sit in his chair and lead us in Rockettes kicks left and right on boisterous tunes.
After 45 minutes or so running through the week’s song list, we’d really get down to it, extemporaneously singing a capella everything from gospel … to polka … to country … to top 40 hits … to show tunes (Lee’s specialty). As Lee was born in 1936, he knew all the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s songs.
This singing together without accompaniment was my favorite. Especially when Terry and Lee would harmonize on "Amazing Grace," the song that always started our gospel segment. More than once it brought tears to my eyes.
Of all the show tunes we did together, the ones from ‘Oklahoma’ were our favorites. For me, it was "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'." For Lee it was "People Will Say We're in Love," which he did solo – both parts. He knew all the lyrics, not only because he loved the musical, but also because he’d acted and sung it on stage several times over the years.
Lee graduated from Kansas State Teachers College (now Pitt State) with his bachelors and masters degrees in English, got a Ph.D. in English from Texas A&M and earned linguistic degrees from The University of Arizona and KU. He was a beloved educator who taught high school and college English, drama, literature and debate in Kansas, Arizona, Missouri, Ohio and Texas.
Lisa Gorman, who works at Medicalodges and has known Lee for years, as she also lives in Mindenmines, told me she has an indelible image of him walking around town with his nieces, grandnieces, nephews and grandnephews.
Lisa said the service at the Church of God was a simple one led by Pastor Larry Hoyt. Of course there were hymns – "Build My Mansion," "What A Day That Will Be," and "How Great Thou Art" performed by vocalist Sheila Murphy, accompanied by her brother-in-law, Gary, on piano and Charles Carter on guitar.
I found it fitting that they ended with "How Great Thou Art," the chorus of which begins, "Then sings my soul …" for Lee was nothing if not a "soul man."
Five minutes after I visited and grieved by phone with Terry about Lee and his relationship with her departed mother, she texted me, "He and mom are probably singing together right now." To which I responded, "Yeah … and acting silly."
In closing, here’s the final verse of the Leon Russell song that opened this column. It expresses what Lee meant to all of us in a few poetic lines:
"I love you in a place where there's no space and time. I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine. And when my life is over, remember when we were together. We were alone and I was singing this song for you."
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or email@example.com