Bill Lee has seen enough history and traveled enough of the world to give Forrest Gump a run for his money. How does such a man keep things interesting in his retirement years?
Short answer? He’s done what he’s always done: find projects and goals that he’s passionate about, spend time with the people he cares about most, and live every day with vigor and drive.
To most of the residents of the Conservatory At Plano, he’s Bill, the 82-year-old gentleman who lives with his wife, deals poker two nights a week and participates in social hours and special functions.
But below the surface, he’s a 20-year Marine who served the country’s highest office in one of its darkest times – the grief-filled, emotionally charged days that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963.
Earlier that year, Lee had been assigned to the USMC Silent Drill Team as a commander, and had the unique duty of serving at The White House during state dinners and the arrival and departure of foreign dignitaries.
In those 10 months, he saw Kennedy and his family up close and personal on multiple occasions, even holding John F. Kennedy Jr. on his lap once at Camp David while the President’s son played with the radio of a Jeep that Lee was sitting in while both awaited the arrival of the President by helicopter.
In perhaps his favorite memory of JFK, Lee was with the President and First Lady at the National Archive, where Jackie Kennedy had arranged for the Mona Lisa to be displayed.
The pair were experiencing a problem with the private elevator that would take them up to where guests were waiting.
“(Kennedy) was standing in front of me, and she was harassing him, saying, ‘Come on, Jack, let’s go a different way, come on,’ and he was telling her to wait. They were standing about two feet in front of me,” Lee recalls.
“Finally he gave in, and as they turned to leave, he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I make all the big decisions.”
The brief glimpses inside Camelot made the events of that November all the more painful for Lee.
“The drill team members became members of the President’s death watch. I stood at the head of his casket while he lay in repose for a little over a day and a half in the White House, and then again in the rotunda of the Capitol,” Lee said. “On that Saturday, I got called on to watch when the family had a mass. I had done my shift, but I stayed there for another 1-1/2 hours. Ted Kennedy and his wife came to the casket, then Bobby Kennedy, then Jackie with Jon-Jon and Carolyn. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, but I could hear them whispering prayers. It was tough to handle, and when she was about to leave, Jackie turned back to look, and it was the most sorrowful, forlorn look I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Even those moments in the White House hardly do justice to Lee’s career serving in his country. He fought in the Korean War, served as an officer in Vietnam, and witnessed two atomic bomb tests in the desert of Nevada during his time as a Marine.
It wasn’t all about White House dinners and Asian combat zones for Lee, however. He married his wife in 1955 and the two have shared the last 60 years together, with two children, two grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren to show for it.
Near the end of his career in the Marines, Lee moved to San Diego as a recruiter, and was himself recruited by Electronic Data Systems (EDS) to begin work after his days in the military ended.
While he wasn’t going to combat zones anymore, the Lee family’s travels were just beginning, with stops in Atlanta, New York, Dallas, Detroit, and London before he retired in 1989.
About 10 years ago, he underwent major back surgery that effectively eliminated his prize hobby of playing golf, and challenged him to find something new.
“I couldn’t golf anymore, and my back was killing me,” Lee said. “Not more than a day or two wandering the house, my wife said I was driving her nuts and I had to find a new hobby. I had promised children I would write something about my early life, so that’s what I decided to do.”
Lee tackled writing the same way he tackled everything else – full-force. He took writing classes at night school and ended up publishing six novels and one short story, many of them connected to his time spent in Kennedy’s White House.
After living for a number of years in a home in one living community, the Lees moved to the Conservatory in November of 2014, as Bill’s wife required more and more assistance with her medical needs.
“Everything is relative,” Lee said of the move to their new apartment. “Yes, you miss your home, my wife misses cooking, but she’s on a walker and some things you just can’t do anymore. The food is good, the staff is excellent, and I’ve made a lot of new friends.”
Lee hasn’t stopped recruiting either, something he did for both the USMC and the Marines. He’s brought in “6 or 7” new residents from his own referrals, and volunteers for marketing projects for the Conservatory in addition to his roles in the game room and social hour.
“I believe in giving back,” Lee said. “It’s what you do when you are able to.”