Amherst Magazine

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Charlie Lees '58 (1936-1979)

Charlie was a member of Alpha Delta Phi who played soccer for four years. A private person, he earned a magna cum laude degree in chemistry plus memberships in Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1962 and spent his internship in Denver.

Charlie’s career ambition was to become a research biochemist rather than a practicing physician. From 1963-1966 he spent three years in the Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., doing biochemical research. For a year he was a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth Medical School before settling down to what he thought would be a research and teaching career in biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine.

But, as he put it in 1973, “things didn’t work out that way.” Research support dried up. Charlie pleaded “for a more stable, long-range national research science policy at a moderate level rather than the frustrating, short-term, uncoordinated efforts that have characterized the era from Sputnik through Vietnam.” But with young kids, he felt “pressure to turn me back toward clinical medicine and a residency in dermatology at B.U.” He finished the residency in 1974 and established a full-time dermatology practice in Nashua, N.H.

The somewhat unanticipated career shift to clinical practice, along with (by then) three young children, posed new challenges. A third challenge was the heart-breaking 1971 institutionalization of his wife, Susan, because of mental illness. (Except for a brief period in a halfway house, she was never able to live independently again. She died in 2001.)

So, within a brief period, Charlie had changed career direction, lost his wife (they divorced), and become a single parent raising three young kids. These changes, according to son Will, caused a “great reset” in his development and life’s work. Will remembered his dad from those years as a “humble caregiver who also happened to be struggling to make a new life.”

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His three, now-adult children agree he did a splendid job. They remember his life as selfless dedication to dutiful service within his family and community. “Charlie was a practical, no-nonsense, hard-working leader who faced every challenge with a ‘let’s get it done’ attitude.” As a physician he is remembered by friends and neighbors as “one who gave back to the community: through guest-lecture teaching at a university, through pro-bono treatment of the infirm, through bed-side consolations of the terminally ill and through charitable giving of his possessions.”

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He apparently never looked back on what might have been. His kids remember that the family ethic of strength, pragmatism and hard work was preserved and instilled in them and his grandchildren. Will has three teenagers and is a software design engineer writer and manager at Microsoft. Tom has two kids and is a programmer database analyst for Unum in Portland, Maine. Ellen is a full-time mom and part-time magazine editor with two young kids in Goshen, N.Y. Perhaps what they remember most is the following:

“Charlie’s youthful passion was sailing off the shores of Cape Cod, where he bested many competitions and spent long meditative excursions studying the ripples of tide and wind. Charlie’s hobbies were both nurturing and cultivating: his home was filled with plants and flowers grown from starts, his basement workshop was filled with tools and projects under construction. He is remembered through the fruits of his carpenter’s hands: bunk-beds for his children, a sun-growthlamp-table for his plants and a house rewired and replumbed for his family.”

Charles William Lees died of melanoma July 31, 1979.

Charlie Lees
Charlie reading to his kids, (l. to r.) William (7), Ellen (3) and Tom (6), 1970
 

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