Stephen Lee spent 37 years attacking hazardous waste at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. But he was also a volunteer firefighter, wrote a book and several articles on local history and guided groups at the State Capitol and Fort Snelling.
The Circle Pines man was, at heart, a storyteller. So who best to write the story of his life?
"I die after a full life with a grateful heart," read the first lines of Lee's obituary. "This is a love letter to the future."
Lee, 69, died Feb. 28, about a year after he was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer. His love letter is packed with details of a life richly lived and shared with family and friends — complete with quips and memories that might not make much sense to those who hadn't heard the stories. Stories such as "the notorious monkey incident."
The Racine, Wis., native graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College and took a job teaching biology at Watertown High School. Lee's sons, Ben and Matt, said their dad gave a monkey arm and hand to a couple of hard-to-reach students as a reward for becoming excellent lab assistants. The "incident" was what the students did after that.
The sons say the boys used it to make an obscene gesture to the school librarian. Dale Anderson, who was in a storytellers group with Lee through the University of Minnesota's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program, said he heard a slightly different version: Lee had taught taxidermy to six troubled students, with one bringing the monkey's arm to study hall. In both versions, however, the gesture — a raised middle finger — was the same.
"It got Steve fired from his job," Anderson recalled Lee sharing with the group, adding that he was "a fine storyteller and a smart man. I came to realize he was a very substantial person."
Ben Lee said: "He wasn't fired, but he wasn't brought back."
Lee's obituary notes his immigrant forebears who came from Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark. It recalls sports he played in high school, bus trips to the Yucatán "before Cancun was even a dot on a map" and touring Europe by moped with his first wife. There is praise for his sons — "What wonderful men. What teachers of their kids." And there is gratitude — to co-workers and neighbors, to doctors and nurses.
Just one paragraph focuses on his illness.
"The prognosis (not curable) was an opportunity to think, thank, and remember," he wrote.
Deborah Gramling, Lee's wife, said the self-written obit was a surprise.
"When I asked Steve about the obit, about what he would like it to say, he said, 'I've written it already,' " she said.
His family said its tone of thanking others while mentioning himself only briefly was exactly who he was. Lee was curious and adventurous and self-deprecating. But he loved to learn, teaching himself to play the accordion and harmonica and even taking an acting class, Gramling said.
"He just loved trying different things," she said. "And he was the love of my life."
His sons said that even though their father packed so much into his life, he never shortchanged those he loved. He never missed a game or a chance to connect.
"I really appreciated my father as a person when I had kids," Matt Lee said.
Lee is survived by his wife, Deborah Gramling of Circle Pines; sons Matthew of Apple Valley, and Benjamin of Vashon Island, Wash.; brother Charles Francis Lee, Roseburg, Ore., sister Patricia Marcroft of Blaine; and several grandchildren. A modified green burial was held at Groveland Cemetery in Minnetonka.
"My molecules released back to the Universe from whence they came," he wrote.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428