Not many corporate hotshots at the software heavyweight SAS Institute immerse themselves in Durham's rough-and-tumble politics, but Lee Richardson did. When I met Lee in the mid-'70s, he was a Duke undergraduate down from the mountains. He had big hair, an endless smile, a hankering for politics and a newfound obsession with Buddhism. Who knew where it would all take him?
Japan first—to meditate and learn the language, and it was there that the left-wing Buddhist hooked up with SAS. Through a 17-year career, he rose to become their vice-president for Asia Pacific and Latin America, picking up four more languages along the way.
But back in Durham, Lee participated in the political battles of the 1970s and '80s that came to define the city's future. He joined the fledgling People's Alliance, fought to stop the East-West Expressway from destroying the close-knit black community of Crest Street and worked hard for the biracial electoral slates that eventually transformed the city. I often wondered if his SAS compatriots knew. When he brought home a political button from the convention of Democratic Socialists, did he wear it around the office—the rose in the fist?
Lee left SAS in 2000, joined a couple of start-ups and had just begun work for a Durham-based company, TheraSim, when he died unexpectedly on a business trip to Addis Ababa two weeks ago. He'd traveled there to take charge of African sales of TheraSim's medical software designed to help fight AIDS.
I'll always remember the joy of our youth together—the causes, the marches, the parties, the dope, the basketball games with his jumper so sweet. One day, his pals Wib and Dub Gulley somehow combined to sprain both his ankles on the court. From then on, it was swimming, golf and tennis.
Lee loved newspapers. He adored his grandfather, the publisher of the daily in his hometown of Morganton. When I told Lee I wanted to start a newspaper and call it the Independent, he became the first shareholder after my mom and dad. He was only 29 years old. Where did he get that $5,000? I wish I could ask him now—and thank him one more time.
And women: Lee liked long legs and high heels—altitude and attitude. It is no wonder that he fell for Val Blettner. Eventually they went into the real estate business together, buying the Duke Tower Hotel in downtown Durham. Lee and Val shared so much: business, travel, Val's art, cooking and the beagles they rescued and brought home to their leafy bower on the edge of Forest Hills Park.
Two weeks before Lee died, Val cooked us a wonderful lunch, and we ate in the floral courtyard at Duke Tower. Lee praised Val's creativity and the hard work she'd done to make the place so beautiful. He talked with excitement of his upcoming work in Africa. Of course, we talked Durham politics. He still kept the Democrats organized in Precinct 9. What a friend: gentle, intense and kind—and I loved him.