By Paul Mills
My last column featured the early life of Johnny Lee, who had many ties to Maine and died just a few weeks ago just shy of his 93rd birthday. As a 19 year old teenager he fled China for Hong Kong under a hail of machine gun fire in the face of advancing Maoist Communist forces in May 1949. His life during the earlier Japanese occupation and in the subsequent civil war between Nationalists and Communists had been marred by multiple brushes with death both for himself and his parents. An avenue for escape arose from his friendship with this columnist’s father, Lieutenant Commander Peter Mills, whom he had met as Mills’ interpreter in China in 1945.
Despite the upheavals and disruptions in China, a steady stream of correspondence with Mills ensued in the four years after Mills’ return to Maine. Through Mills’ ardent advocacy Colby grants Lee a tuition free scholarship. His room and board is provided through arrangements for a position as a “houseboy” for the Kenneth Tipper family with whom he initially resides. Red tape and protracted travel delay his sojourn from Hong Kong to Maine until late September when Mills meets him at Portland’s Union Station. He drives him from there first to Farmington and then to Waterville.
His cheerful, outgoing persona – not to mention a fluent familiarity with informal American idiom acquired from viewing U.S. movies his dad had imported to China – wins him widespread popularity, though he encounters occasional episodes of racial prejudice among some off campus “townies.”
“Everyone knew Johnny Lee,” once recalled Barbara Coleman for this columnist. A fellow Colby student and daughter of then mayor and downtown retailer Russell Squire, Coleman remembered Lee as an engaged spectator at nearly every athletic event and one of the most school spirited students on campus.
In October 1950 at a flag raising ceremony observing United Nation’s Day Lee is one of only three overseas students, the other two being from Israel and Greece.
For his last two years there he is taken in by Phyllis Fraser, a Colby secretary. Mrs. Frasers’s family also includes a daughter, Janet, then also attending Colby who would later marry Robert Mitchell, brother of Senator George Mitchell. The Mitchells would remain among Lee’s closest friends for the rest of his life.
A member of the prestigious Blue Key Honor Society, Lee graduates with a history and government degree in 1953. Once his student visa expires Lee is threatened with deportation. But leaving America and confronting the ire of Communist Chinese was not an alluring prospect. Mills, an attorney, helps clear away bureaucratic obstacles to Lee’s objectives, helping him succeed in gaining acceptance to the Army in a course of action that also leads to American citizenship June 15, 1954. It is a date he would commemorate every year for the rest of his life.
Discharged in 1956, Lee then moves to Connecticut where in 1957 he marries Vermont native Audrey Huestis, a colleague at an insurance company where they both worked. She would go on to become the mother of his three children. After earning a masters in international relations Lee leaves the insurance sector in 1967 to become Chair of the social science department at a Connecticut community college where he remains until 1976.
Lee returns to active duty in the Army for several assignments both at the Pentagon as well as to the Far East. By 1979, his father makes a surprise phone call to Lee, the first time the two have been able to speak in 30-years. His dad has successfully migrated to the United States. His mother follows two years later.
His dad recounts to Lee the hardships they have endured in the time they have been out of touch. Though at the outset of Communist rule, all their movie theatres and other business ventures were seized, the most fearful period is in the late 1960’s Cultural Revolution. In 1968, nearly all of his dad’s best friends and colleagues are executed. The Chinese government targets anyone with perceived American ties. The elder Lees elude their fate by destroying or concealing any American momentoes including those given them in 1945 by U.S. service personnel.
At about the same time as his 1979 reunion with his father, a romance develops between Lee and a D.C. legal secretary named Cheryl Reed. (Lee’s marriage to Audrey had ended a few years earlier.) The elder daughter of former Maine Governor John Reed, she is, like Lee, also a Colby alumnus. Their domestic partnership leads eventually in 2013 to their marriage, which thrives until her death in 2020. Their association occasions annual visits to the Reed family camp at Smithfield’s North Pond. Homecoming and Class Reunions at nearby Colby also are a draw for the couple.
By 1984, Lee returns to Peiping – now renamed Beijing – for the first time since 1949. As the Army attache at the American embassy he is afforded a close look at the way the city has changed in his 35-year absence. Few landmarks remain intact though he does manage to have breakfast at the same hotel where he had his last before fleeing in 1949.
During most of his adult life he take on a number of free lance translating assignments, most notably as an editor for the Chinese language edition of U.S. News and World Report during its entire four year run from 1986 to 1990.
By 1989 Lee has attained the rank of colonel and retires from the Army. However, he remains for several years as a civilian staff officer at the Pentagon.
In the 1990’s he resumes his academic career, teaching history at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth and Washington’s Southeastern University. He also puts in time as a visiting speaker at history and government classes at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Lee’s time in America had so far been a comparatively tranquil epilogue to the multitude of frantic upheavals of his Chinese experiences.
The morning of September 11, 2001 would be different.
On his way to meet a tour group he was to direct in downtown D.C. Lee stopped at the Pentagon where he had spent several of his Army years. After obtaining some cash from a credit union and attempting to get a haircut from his long time barber, he then heads to a Pentagon coffee shop. Suddenly, he realized after one sip how much he detested the brand that it typically sold, “chucked it” and left. Fifteen minutes later, Al Qaeda commandeered American Airlines Boeing 757, crashed into the coffee shop’s area at 530 miles an hour, killing 125 persons on the ground and injuring over 100 others.
“I’d thought of letting [the coffee brand] know that its crummy coffee saved my life, for I would have still been in the Pentagon sipping it when the plane plowed through five rings almost to the Center Courtyard!,” Lee later recalled.
Lee is survived by three children and eight grandchildren, all of whom have distinguished personal and professional narratives. His oldest son, Bill, is a PhD from Johns Hopkins and is Director of Diagnostic Immunology in New York’s Department of Health. His wife, Jenny, besides being a controller at a mortgage servicing company, has just completed her 70th marathon. Their son and Lee’s oldest grandchild, Christopher Lee, ranked 14 out of 1001 in his 2008 graduating class at West Point. A daughter, Wendy, was a long time intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency and is married to a Navy Captain, the son of a former CIA deputy director. Their daughter – perhaps following in the footsteps of Lee’s own father – has had a career in film and TV production.
The youngest child, Robert, is a civil engineer with the state of Connecticut. His wife, perhaps in some ways carrying on one of Lee’s own long time vocations, is an interpreter for the deaf.
Whether it be the legacy of his family members or his own inspirational narrative, Lee’s life illustrates how great a contribution a refugee from authoritarian rule can make and how long a shadow that casts.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his historical understanding and analyses of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at email@example.com