by Len Lear
In the past year, three Chestnut Hill area freelance writers on whom I depended for excellent human interest stories over the years — Jane Lenel, Pat Stokes and Mary “Missy” Price Lee — have all died. In addition to the story ideas I no longer get from them, I miss the emails and phone calls, sometimes about stories they had been assigned but often just about the challenges that come with being alive or issues in the community.
The last of the three, Missy Lee, 79, died April 27 at her home in Flourtown. In recent years she suffered from a Job-like series of debilitating, painful injuries and illnesses — two broken legs, a broken hip, two strokes and a heart attack — but unlike most of us, she never complained and was relentlessly upbeat, which is almost impossible to do for someone in serious physical pain.
According to her husband, Richard, with whom she wrote the column, “Facts of Life,” for Local Life, “When asked how she felt, Missy always insisted, ‘I’m fine!’ even when wearing a cast from hip to toe, or just out of surgery for a hip replacement. With the same incurable optimism, she never wrote sad things in her diaries.”
In fact, the last article she wrote for us was on Jan. 2 of this year about her stay at the Dresher Hill rehab facility in Dresher to recover from a broken leg. But instead of writing about her pain, which was considerable, she wrote only about how wonderful and caring the workers were. “There must be a special place in Heaven for rehab entertainers,” she wrote.
“Our great friend, Claudia Beechman Cohen, of the Beechman vocal and performing aristocracy of Wyndmoor, met Witney (a physical therapist from Haiti) when she came to visit me. She was kind enough to sing ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ for us. The result was sensational: everyone in my room clapped and clapped.”
About one month ago, Missy contacted me with another article idea about yet another stay in a local rehab facility. When she explained that she wanted to write about how wonderful the workers were in this venue also, I said, “Missy, I have to say no. I love articles that lavish praise on unsung heroes, but this is exactly like the article you did recently for us. Only the names are different. I’m afraid I have to say no.”
Her response: “I understand. That’s alright.”
According to Richard, “Missy polished her friendships the way others polish their silver. Any time she would find something she thought would interest a friend, especially in a magazine, she would cut it out and mail it off. Then she would give the tattered magazine to another friend, always with apologies for its appearance. She adored giving all sorts of things away, including copies of her books. When the copies were all gone, she’d buy used ones on the Internet — to give away. She also enjoyed using two of her books to tell people the origins of their first and/or last names, whether they wanted to know or not. And she never sent a greeting card she didn’t edit first … And she never met a catalogue she didn’t like.”
When I visited the Lees’ modest home in Flourtown several years ago to do an article on the more-than-20 mostly self-help books they had written (18 were collaborations with both Lees), I learned that Missy was an ardent Francophile as well as a passionate fan of the British monarchy, and that she often wrote to the Queen. Believe it or not, each letter to Queen Elizabeth actually elicited a response on the Queen’s behalf from one of her Ladies-In-Waiting. Missy saved all of the letters, along with much else.
I agree with Richard, who said last week that “as a writer, she was consummately professional. She did her own research ‘by hand’ for each of 21 young adult career and coping books, even after computers arrived. Deadlines were sacred, but she freely admitted launching her career with a self-published book, a supposed no-no.”
According to Richard, Missy adored espresso, so much so that during a trip to Portugal, she and Richard went to the restaurant supply district of Lisbon and bought a big two-cup machine. She negotiated the price in French. On arriving homebound at Kennedy International Airport, the U.S. Customs clerk couldn’t believe it would be for home use. Missy insisted. The clerk passed it, with the comment, “You must love coffee one heckuva lot.” Missy loved the story and told it for years. (The machine finally developed incurable leaks, so Missy gave it to the Chestnut Hill Coffee Company; it sat in their front window for ages.)
In recent years nothing made Missy happier than her grandchild, Katie, who was adopted from China by the Lees’ daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Rick Stechert, of North Wales. In August of 2009, Katie’s photo graced the cover of Parents Express magazine.
“Katie, now 11,” Missy wrote recently, “is a whizzbang in school, loves to dance as part of a troupe and sings with her church choir. With other children from China adopted at the same time, she and mommy and daddy visit a different site (such as Williamsburg) each year. Since the girls all came from Hunan Province, home of hot-style Chinese cooking, they call their yearly get-together the Spice Girls’ Reunion.”
The last few days of Missy’s life were “wonderful,” according to Richard, because so many friends and admirers came to visit her. Then she went to sleep and did not wake up. But perhaps the thing I will most remember about Missy is the fact that she is the only freelance writer who ever said to me, “I love you.” She said this to me on the phone three times in recent years. I was so shocked (trust me, this is not something you expect to hear from freelancers; just the opposite), I did not know how to respond. I think that each time I simply said, “Thank you.” Pretty lame, indeed, unlike Missy, who had a heart of gold.