Born in Bedford, Ind. on February 26, 1924, Tom Lee died on December 18, 2021 at the age of 97 in Boise, Idaho. He had an amazing life as an educator, musician, author, and devoted Christian. During World War II, Tom was injured in the Battle of the Bulge and received the Purple Heart.
Members of the Colorado Academy community remember Tom Lee
Tom Fitzgerald: In the fall of 1962, I came to teach at Colorado Academy. The school at that time was seeking to redefine itself. It was emerging from its days as a military school and becoming a K-12 boarding and day school for boys. The physical plant left a lot to be desired. There was a dorm under construction; the Middle School was a cinderblock building where the Schotters Music Center now stands. The Upper School was a series of old Ft. Logan army barracks. What I thought was the gym on a hill turned out to be Pinehurst Country Club, and the real gym was a converted airplane hanger. And along with all of this, I met Tom Lee, known as the Senior Master of the Middle School.
I was to teach Ancient and Medieval History to Eighth Grade students and American Government to Ninth Graders. This was a time in schools where you weren’t asked, “How would you feel about…” doing other things. You were told that, in addition to your teaching, you would also teach an elective, coach seasonal sports, work a regular schedule of weekend dorm duty, drive a bus if necessary, and other sundry things. Tom laid all of these things out and said, “Welcome to CA.”
Tom had a gruff demeanor, gravelly voice, and a noticeable limp from being wounded in WWII. The wound resulted in years of surgery and finally in his having a prosthesis. He taught English and American Government and directed a stage band known as the Preps. In his eleven years at CA, he held a multitude of administrative offices, including Assistant Headmaster.
The 1960s were a tumultuous decade for the country and for schools. It was a time of assassinations, war, and civil rights debates. It was a time of redefining issues like race and class. At CA, all of these issues were seen in various forms of protest, which might include flouting rules about hair length, collared shirts, smoking, and drugs. In all of this, Tom had a major role of enforcing school policy. It was not an enviable position. A number of students were told by Tom that, if they didn’t follow the rules that were set out, he would come and find them, and they would find out he had another use for his prosthesis.
For me, he was a friend and colleague and a mentor. He took time to coach me on having conversations with parents, working in a boarding school, and to help me “learn my craft” as a teacher.
After leaving CA, Tom became the Headmaster of the Ojai Valley School in California. After a four-year stay, he became the administrator for education for the Idaho Department of Corrections. He oversaw the educational activity in four different prisons. I suggested to him he had the perfect job, where classrooms were self-contained, and there were no discipline issues.
He was always certain in his beliefs and how things should be done. There was never any doubt where Tom stood on issues, be they educational or political. His Christmas notes to me always were the same. He would say, “I get up in the morning and pray and then practice my trombone and spend the latter part of the day cursing democrats.” He reminded me of a story I read where a woman told her children that, when she died and went to heaven, she was sure she would find out that God was a Republican.
Tom’s presence at CA during the ’60s helped establish a foundation that helped the school grow into itself in the years to follow. He made a difference.
Charles Cavness ’69: Tom Lee’s obituary reveals a deep religious conviction that I had never previously recognized. On reflection, however, Fred Morfit and I have laughed that it was certainly apprehension of Old Testament quality wrath that threatened us from Tom’s end of the hall. On the one hand, Colorado Academy Middle School was hardly a Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, I guess Tom never actually killed any of us for infractions, either. I guess we never thought that Tom might really kill us, but that fact was not a particular solace when Tom became aware of a delinquency.
In truth, Thomas Jefferson Lee simply held his students to proper standards for leading a successful and admirable life. T.J. clearly had read biographies of his eponymous role model and took those standards to heart. With my old man’s hindsight, it seems there was a lot that teenagers in the 1960s should have learned from a man who emulated Jefferson and Lee, and who had lost a leg and survived the Battle of the Bulge. Who knew? Even if you realized that Tom’s standards were proper, but still thought you might violate them and not get caught, you certainly sensed that Tom was the toughest guy on the hall. Survived the Battle of the Bulge, indeed.
What a fine man. What fine lessons he taught. What benefits those lessons have been to the lives of so many of Tom’s students. Almost seven decades after absorbing some of my own lessons from Tom, he still whispers in my ear. I remain profoundly appreciative, and I miss the man.
Dave Earnhardt ’67: I am very sad that we’ve lost Tom Lee. He was one of my mentors in my early years at CA. I will miss him greatly. In fact, I went to Wabash College, his alma mater, at his suggestion, where I got my BA in English. I am very happy that I did. I played piano in the CA Preps. The music transcriptions that we used for the CA Preps, which were very fine, were those arranged by Art Tatum, Black jazz pianist.
Tom Lee graduated from Wabash College in 1951, and got his master’s at the University of Denver. I also got my BA at Wabash College, which was established 31 years before the U.S. Civil War. There is a plaque with the names of its students who fought in that war. Wabash College was all-male (which it still is, though some women professors teach there). As a liberal arts college, it encouraged self-reflection and independence of mind. The professors were wonderful and encouraged discussion as the best way to accomplish best practices. Reasoned disagreement, along with respect for thoughtful opponents, and the importance of being a good listener, was thought to be of highest value. A strong sense of loyalty was engendered in students. I found these qualities at CA. As I write this, I contemplate just how much society has changed. Again, though, I’m reminded of how Tom embodied the disciplined and judicial qualities of a gentleman.
I talked to him on the phone two years ago. I did read his book, Depression, War, Disability be Damned: Praise God, with great interest and satisfaction. He was a gentleman’s gentleman, and a fine historical scholar. The book contains his family history and describes many interesting experiences, and it was an inspirational book, overall.
As a student, if I got sent to Mr. Lee to be disciplined, he would always end the session by saying, “All right, I will take your word that you’ll behave more responsibly and maturely from now on.” Then, he’d grin, and conclude, “And if you don’t, I’ll send you to the moon!” as he struck one hand flat across the back of his other hand to simulate a rocket taking off. He’d always chuckle then, and shake your hand, and I knew that he really cared. I assume that he followed this routine with other students.
When the CA Preps rehearsed, as Mr. Lee conducted, he would join in and play [trombone]. He was very good! He would also threaten anyone who made a mistake with hitting them on the head with his trombone mouthpiece, but actually never did that. Often, he would laugh and have the student who’d made the mistake play his part solo, which, having to face his peers all alone, tended to make him pay attention better the next time.
Tom visited my grandparents’ house once and listened to the jazz trio Steve Gordon ’68, Phil Effland (who attended Cherry Creek High School), and I had formed. He was complimentary, especially about a song we’d composed called “Portrait.”
His favorite trombonist was Jack Teagarden. He smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, at the time that smoking was permitted in classrooms, along with Mr. Cotton, Mr. Banbury, and, I believe, Mr. Shae, as well as Seniors in the Senior Lounge. I believe that Tom’s favorite song was Gershwin’s, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Joel Knight ’67: I am so sorry to hear about Tom Lee’s passing. It truly leaves a void in my heart.
I remember a class when he was talking about the concept “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” He asked us to guess what his favorite sport was, and gave us multiple choices to consider. Wrestling was one choice, and with his one wooden leg, no one picked that. Well, wrestling was the answer. It was a lecture well delivered.
Then, I was in the Ninth Grade taking a Civics class from Mr. Lee when President Kennedy was assassinated. He cancelled our class, of course. The look and seriousness on his face concerned me as much as the reality of the event.
Tom Lee was the rock and foundation of our Middle School in the 1960s.
He is sadly missed and greatly respected.
Ken Malo ’66: I’m sorry to hear about Tom. I learned a lot from him. The story about how he lost his leg in a foxhole, and his introduction to CA standing at a bus stop at DU are classics.
Fred Morfit ’68: Oh, geez, soooo many stories. This one is gonna’ take some time to process.
Tim Moore ’71: I, too, send my condolences to Mr. Lee’s family and am always saddened at the loss of those people I knew during an earlier phase of life. Mr. Lee was tough and ruled us Colorado Academy lads with a firm look and ever-watchful eye. He was also my advisor, which perhaps frightened me even more, but it was unnecessary, as he always had time for me, and that eye also looked toward my future and how he could contribute to making it better by guiding my academic choices.
I recall seeking him out to inform him that I did not want to take biology in my upcoming Junior year. Rumors about a hard and dismal teacher of life sciences were rampant. He knew all about it, reassured me that a new, young, and exciting teacher would be taking charge the following year and reassured me as I tentatively agreed to give it a try. The new teacher was Mr. Woody Monte, who dazzled and charmed me in to taking, not just regular biology, but Advanced Placement as well. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, a teacher of biology both at high school and college levels, and a forty-year career as a physician suggest that Mr. Lee’s guidance was wise.
So thank you, Mr. Lee, and may you rest reassured about how you guided many in your role as educator and counselor.
Tom “Crusher” Richards ’65: My very first memory of Mr. Lee stemmed from a conversation I had with my father, who was also a World War II veteran. After learning that Mr. Lee was a Purple Heart recipient, my father told me in no uncertain terms that I was to treat him with the utmost respect. I am a veteran myself, after a career in the United States Air Force. When viewed through the lens of my military experiences, I appreciate to a much greater extent what Mr. Lee endured while recovering. Like so many of those veterans, he did not dwell on his experiences, but he did share with us on occasion some glimpses of his recovery. And it wasn’t pretty. He was a tough guy.
I had Mr. Lee as an instructor for several classes. There was never any question as to who was in charge of his classes. He portrayed himself as a grizzled, tough-as-nails GI, which he was, of course. As time passed, we realized that underneath that tough exterior was a very kind man who cared deeply for his “troops.”
One of his more colorful admonitions to his “young gentlemen” was “you all had better sit down and shut up, or I will fill your ass with splinters.”
He really enjoyed music. Mr. Lee played the trombone and led our school jazz band. I played the bass. It was fun seeing him in this capacity. I recall one occasion when we played a song that had a title that was not politically correct. He changed the title to a more acceptable one. He chuckled while explaining to his callow lads what the title really meant.
Mr. Lee was always Mr.—one absolutely NEVER called him anything other than Mister or Sir. Nor did you even remotely contemplate trying to give him a line of **.
It was some 60 years ago that I had him as an instructor. He really did leave a lasting impression.
He was a good man, and I am proud to have known him. The bugle has played taps one last time. Rest in peace, Sir.
Jim Roberts ’67: My impression of Tom Lee—he was a “tough old bird,” not to be messed with, typical Marine in civilian clothes. I did get him to laugh a few times with my antics. It felt good.
Fred Morfit ’68: Even if we had not been taught to address our teachers with “Sir,” we likely would have used the word with Tom Lee, anyway. Lantern jawed, thunder voiced, he patrolled the campus, an Old Testament God, all rules and no forgiveness. At least that is how he appeared. The truth was he had a good sense of humor, and he exchanged as many jokes with us as he did correctives. Once, in a “round up the usual suspects” moment, a group of us was herded from our various classes into his office. We looked around the room, maybe ten of us, wondering why we were there. “Well, I suppose you know why you’re here!” he bellowed. Quizzical glances all around, until Billy Bosworth offered, “Usually, I’d say it’s something about the bus, but Charlie (Cavness) doesn’t ride our bus.”
“Charlie, you can leave,” said Mr. Lee. First, there was a solitary giggle. Then more. In seconds the tension in the room dissolved into belly laughs all around, Lee included. The feared lightning bolts were not dispensed that day, whatever the offense was drew a mild rebuke, and we were dismissed.
Then there was the “wooden leg”—a prosthesis hard won at the Battle of the Bulge that we all knew about but never dared say anything about…until the day that he strode up to my chair in 7th grade and demanded, “Kick it.” I didn’t want to; I was terrified, but tentatively gave it a small tap. “KICK IT!” he roared, so I gave it a good thump. “Anybody else?” he asked, turning to the rest of the class. Silence. All eyes on our desks. “Okay then.” Turning back to the business at hand, “Cavness, what is the predicate of a sentence?” Don’t Mess With Me lesson concluded. And received.
I was surprised to learn that he was a religious man. CA in those days was a solidly secular institution, although there was an Episcopal priest that appeared occasionally for no apparent reason. However, we knew Mr. Lee was an avid jazz fan, ’bone player, Billie Holliday lover, and, later, I would find out he appreciated a good bourbon. Did they know that about him in that good church up in Idaho? Who cares? We did, and it’s part of what we loved and will miss about him.
Charlie Nicola ’68: Tom’s passion for music, his technique of holding his mouthpiece over horn section heads, constant Lucky Strike smokes, and what surely must have been his frustration of never getting the Colorado Academy Preps to sound like a tight dance band is what I remember.
Dan [see below] had some fun fantasizing about Tom’s possible frustration, after reading what Charlie wrote, considering Tom was a seasoned jazz trombone player for much of his life.
Dan Newman ’66: The pain must have been excruciating, having to listen to a bunch of “hare lips” squawking sax and trumpet notes spastically, farting, and squeaking abominations throughout every score, drums nowhere near the time signature sounding like an airplane crash, a gathering of fowl greeting the morning sunrise, a cacophony of tangled fingers, rubber lips, and bewilderment of the chicken scratches on the papers before all eyes. “4/4, that adds up to eight, doesn’t it. Or do you divide it?” “What are all those flags and dots going up and down?” It is a wonderment that he didn’t break down uncontrollably in tears!
In truth and reality, Tom created a wonderful place in time for all of us, and we played our best. Tom was a very tasty trombone player, and Jack Teagarden was his inspiration.
It must have been sometime in early 1965 that Tom was playing in a Dixieland band at a roadhouse in Morrison during weekends. There were a few times that their drummer could not play, so Tom would sneak me off campus to take the drummer’s place. I had to meet him off the school grounds, and we would then drive to Morrison and play into the early morning hours. He explained that this was “top secret,” because if the school found out about it, I would certainly be kicked out, and he would probably be fired. I never said a word to anybody about it. At that time, a student could be removed for drinking a beer, although bizarrely there was an on-campus Pipe Club, where students and faculty would sit and smoke pipes and try out different tobaccos.
Wow! I got to play with the Big Boys in a bar! Seems to me the lineup was banjo, piano, trombone, clarinet, and drums. I had never played that kind of music, but my time in “The Preps” prepared me well; I got to do it again and again, thanks to “Mr. Lee.”
I can still visualize that roadhouse, the stage, the knotty pine-paneled walls, and the music. Thanks, Tom.
Campbell Dalglish ’67: Ever since I first heard of Tom’s passing, a flood of memories came through my back door. Many of us remember him hovering over us in our band, (I played trumpet), and if we missed a note, that trombone mouthpiece, as heavy as the hammer of God, threatened to come down on our heads. It never did. But his perspiration and love of the tune, “Look Who’s Sorry Now, Boys,” or one of his other favorites that he used to play in the dance band of his WWII troopers, would be breathing down our necks like a perspiring beast so deep into the music that you just had no choice but to fall under his spell and deliver.
One of the many lessons he taught me was the importance of singing the tune. “If you can sing it, you can play it.” And so each of us would sing the tune, sometimes to the embarrassment of the whole band. But we got it. We even cut a record, which I would die to get a hold of if anyone has it.
At moments of great frustration with all of us, he would pull up his pant leg, baring his wooden leg, and stomp around the room, playing his trombone, blasting away some improvisation of the tune, to all our amazement. One particular time, I remember him taking off that wooden leg and waving it in the air, commanding us to surrender ourselves to the music. How could we not?! And so he taught me how to improvise on the trumpet solo of “Star Dust,” which I still pull out my trumpet and play away, just to remember Tom.
Another memory of when I first came to CA: I wanted to study Latin, so that I could master my writing skills. CA did not have Latin. But he convinced me that, if I read and wrote a lot, that would happen. And it did. I wish today I could share with him my latest film, Savage Land. When I think of who I would want most to see it, besides my own parents, he comes first to mind.
Then there’s the time he joined fellow faculty at a party with my parents, who were also CA teachers, and Slevin, Esbenshade, Cotton, Banbury, and a few others, up in our adobe home in Indian Hills. Joel Knight and I had made our own brew of red wine in the basement under the CA kitchen, without Harry, the chef, really knowing, although we know he did; he just turned away with a wink and a grimace that we’d better not tell anyone because we would all get kicked out and he would be fired. But there we were serving it up to all the faculty in my parents’ home. They all remarked at how good it was. Tom gave me a look, smacking his lips and commending us with a smile, a very serious knowing smile, that we had indeed crossed the line, but the wine was good, and the secret would stay inside, with a good warm feeling all around. Of course, we were not allowed to drink with the faculty, even though it was wine we had made; not until later back in my bedroom.
My final memory was years after graduation. I had applied as a Conscientious Objector with the military draft. I was working with the American Friends Service, Quakers, and the Mennonites, and had my table of “Boycott the Draft” material outside the student centers of CU and CSU. I needed a letter from someone on my high school faculty addressed to my draft board. I returned to talk with Slevin, who denied me a letter because he said he had seen how I was on the football field— obviously not a candidate in his eyes for a CO. He reminded me of the beat-up drills we did before the game against Fountain Valley, where as Captain, I had instructed my teammates to turn to one another and beat each other up. Fountain Valley, at the other end of the field, stopped dead in their jumping jacks, wondering what the heck was going on. Slevin had a point. What was I thinking? But when I met with Tom, a WWII veteran as we all know, we had a long heart-to-heart meeting about the meaning of war, the good wars and the bad false wars, and, being the historian and wise man that he was, he could see just how wrong Vietnam was. But more importantly, he made me look deep into myself for my pacifist conviction and believed in me when I confessed my deepest feelings, knowing that I had an older brother who was enlisted in the Navy under Cotton’s guidance. He wrote a letter supporting my decision not to join the military service. That was probably the most meaningful moment where he, as my guide, my mentor, my teacher, had the most profound effect on me. Later, when I was working in the prisons in New Haven while attending Yale School of Drama for my MFA, I had a call with Tom, and we shared our stories of working in prisons, helping inmates realize their human nature, how to tame the wild uncontrollable monstrous nature inside and to heal through education.
Thus, Tom Lee goes down in my learning experience as the most impactful teacher I ever had. I will hold him in my heart forever. Thanks, Tom. And thanks to all my classmates who have shared in this remembrance of a truly great wise, generous and relentless, hard-loving teacher. His trombone mouthpiece is forever hanging in the air above our heads.