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Who was Richard E. Lee?

Remembrances of Richard E. Lee: Poet, Artist, Teacher, and Friend

by his former student, DaraleeRichard E. Lee by Savya Lee

As I write this weeks after Richard E. Lee's death on December 14, 2001, it is still difficult for me to believe he is no longer here on this earth. Poet, artist, professor, mentor and friend, Richard was all these persons to me, and more. His energy and enthusiasm for life made him at times seem immortal, and the unique path he chose to live in this world made him unlike any other person I have known.

I met Richard in the spring semester of 1978, when I was searching for a creative writing short story class to replace the one assigned to me on my schedule. As I walked in the door wondering whether this professor would accept another student in his English 205 class, my anxieties quickly vanished. Dr. Lee welcomed me enthusiastically, and I liked him from the start. Friendly and loquacious, he brought the classroom to life and made learning fun. Our short story exercises on writing dialogues and character sketches were not merely tasks, but ways of getting in touch with ourselves. Along with our assignments, Dr. Lee had us keep a journal. From his analytical and insightful comments on my papers as well as my visits to his office, I could tell he read everything I had written quite thoroughly. He cared about who we were and what we thought, and understood me as a person. I appreciated his promptness in returning our work to us, and also in keeping his word about what we could expect from his class. I wondered if Dr. Lee had always run his classes in this relaxed-but-efficient manner, as he had been teaching English at CSULB since 1955.

After completing English 205, I felt encouraged to declare myself an English major with a Creative Writing option. Dr. Lee suggested that I enroll in his poetry writing class (English 206), and this led to advanced poetry writing (English 406), and two Directed Studies courses (English 499) in which I created poetry books under Dr. Lee's direct supervision. In the process of learning about -- and experimenting with -- various poetic forms, we also learned about Dr. Lee and his interests. The latter was probably inevitable at the time, given his unconventional dress that prompted questions and scrutiny. As a disciple of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, he occasionally referred to himself by his given name "Deva Veerendra" ("Divine Courage"), and wore orange-colored clothing and a pendant with a photo of Rajneesh. Though he and his beliefs were sometimes criticized by others, Dr. Lee/Deva Veerendra was true to his ideals, and while I didn't always understand him or what he believed in, I found that quality of devotion admirable.

Until I graduated in the spring of 1981, my days were often filled with the trials and tribulations of a young student who lived a sheltered life. I fretted over tests, grades, and my job at The Broadway department store, and took myself too seriously at times. When I needed to vent my frustrations, I often turned to Dr. Lee for advice. He was always there in HOB-502 -- his office in the Humanities Office Building (now the McIntosh Humanities Building) -- and helped me through each ordeal with great patience, kindness, and a marvelous sense of humor. His presence in my life was therapeutic, as he had a magical quality about him, and the ability to help others see the truth. I felt fortunate we were able to remain friends after he retired in 1983, and no longer saw one another.

Richard E. Lee was a friend to countless individuals, and he enlightened people, and touched and healed their lives. During the span of his lifetime, he had been a son, brother, World War II soldier, student and graduate of NYU for his three degrees, professor, husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather -- among everything else he had been through the pursuit of his many interests and hobbies. From what I witnessed, his intellectual and creative gifts allowed him to express his knowledge of life through writing, art, photography, music, healing, and the art of living. In his quest to find himself and the truth, he kept an open and inquisitive mind that embraced many ideals, religions, and philosophies. He never stopped searching for meaning in this world, weaving threads of one concept into another, to form his own tapestry of life. As long as I had known him, he was ever learning, growing, and in the state of becoming.

Though at times he was self-deprecating, moody, and stubborn, Richard was honest, sincere, loyal, helpful, and supportive. Though sometimes uncertain about which direction to take in life, his path became his own: one that was unique and inventive. In doing so, he did not know how brave he was inside -- but as he was very modest, he probably wouldn't believe it if anyone told him this about himself. It is a demonstration of true courage to be what you are without holding back, even if what you are is not what others think you ought to be. In being himself, Richard was never offensive, forceful, or arrogant. He had an elegance and eloquence about him, and a kind of whimsical flair that set him ahead of the crowd.

When he wrote in an e-mail a few years ago that he was diagnosed as having lung cancer, I was shocked and disheartened. As long as I had known him, Richard had taken good care of himself, primarily eating fruits and vegetables, drinking tea, and exercising on a regular basis. I never thought he would ever become seriously ill, even at this stage in his life. Despite his occasional jokes about his ailing health, I could tell he was angry about it all, but in his stubborn and elfish ways, he seemed to beat the odds. His continued zeal for his personal plans conveyed the spirit of a man who was vital and youthful beyond his years, and soon I began to be in denial about his condition.

It was his stubbornness, I think, that helped him live successfully beyond the doctor's prognosis. Therefore, I was in disbelief when his wife Savya (Carol) told me that within two weeks of being seriously ill, his health took a sudden turn for the worse and he had succumbed to death. Even now, it seems impossible. However, I don't think he would want anyone to mourn his death too deeply -- though at times that is all I can think of doing. His suffering has ended, and he shall rest for now…until his next quest.

Richard's loss is a great one for me and I know for many, many others. I will miss his lightheartedness, wit, intelligence, cheerfulness, enthusiasm, energy, artwork, poetry, letters, e-mails, constancy, friendship, and him. Richard E. Lee was one of the truest friends I've ever had.