Goodbye parties are for the good times, but Chuck Lee came to an unsettling conclusion at his.
It was June 24 at the Press Box, where folks of Missoula County who deal in emergencies and tragedies were gathered to honor the longtime chaplain of the sheriff’s office.
"I was looking around saying this is so nice. Look at all these people come together to say thank you and goodbye to me," Lee said last week. "Then I realized most everybody in that room I had some kind of sad story with."
After 13 years with the force and 21 in Missoula, Lee is moving with wife Connie to Bennington, Vermont, where their son Andy and his family of five recently relocated. Andy, a Valley Christian High School graduate, is teaching at Northeastern Baptist College. Connie has already lined up a job teaching sixth grade. Chuck? He’ll be working at a funeral home.
“It’ll be a bit of a transition, but not much,” Lee said cheerfully. “I’m used to working with the coroner and with funeral homes here when they do removals from homes and other places. It’ll be very familiar to me.”
To say his departure leaves a gaping void in the Missoula emergency response community is an understatement.
Lee has been a sounding board to frustrated or grieving deputies, a source of comfort after heartbreaking accidents, the one who accompanied officers to help break terrible news to a family after a death and the one who took the time to give dispatchers the rest of the story after a 9-1-1 call was over.
“Chuck was such an amazing resource to the sheriff’s office, especially when he assisted on coroner’s calls,” Undersheriff Jason Johnson said. “I’ll never forget the day when Chuck came with me to the hospital to conduct coroner duties for a family who had lost their 4-day-old child.”
“Chuck Lee is a man who instead of telling others how they should live, led by example,” said Capt. Anthony Rio, who has prepared his special spaghetti sauce for benefit dinners the past few Novembers to keep Lee and family afloat. “The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Missoula community, has suffered a great loss with his departure.”
Born and raised in Florida, Lee began life as a pastor while attending college in Missouri. He immediately felt drawn to the counseling side of things.
“I was always much more comfortable working with people in crisis,” Lee said. “I enjoyed doing funerals more than weddings.”
He moved the family to Missoula in late 1993 to become pastor at the Lincoln School Baptist Church in the Rattlesnake. He first volunteered with the sheriff's office under Sheriff Doug Chase in 1995, but found he was too busy with church duties to stay.
In 2002, his responsibilities at the church changed such that Lee was back in Chase’s office, asking to help out.
Chase, one of Missoula's most popular sheriffs who retired as Polson's chief of police four years ago, readily agreed.
Lee started out with Wednesday “ride-alongs,” attending the 6:30 a.m. briefings and spending a few hours or the whole day with deputies to gain their trust. That was a key to Lee's success.
“Law enforcement ... we’re by nature suspicious of the people we’re working with or dealing with,” Chase said last week. “With Chuck, his sincerity and commitment showed the officers that he was the real thing as a chaplain.”
By 2006, Lee was ready to tackle the position full time, despite its almost nonexistent financial rewards.
He formed a nonprofit organization, Emergency Responders Support Services, and contracted with the county for his services. Still, Lee was living off his retirement until the Missoula County Deputy Sheriff’s Association voted in 2007 to increase their monthly dues by $1,000 to help fund his position.
“It was a significant statement that the association would ante up the money they did,” Chase noted. “I think that speaks right there to Chaplain Lee’s trustworthiness with the troops.”
By 2011, Lee was working full time and more on a meager $30,000 contract with no benefits. His colleagues in the sheriff’s department threw him a chaplain’s benefit dinner that was repeated each of the three Novembers since.
While he was there for victims and their loved ones, Lee said his focus was always on those who serve, in the sheriff’s office and other arenas.
It might have been a highway patrolman dealing with the aftereffects of a fatal accident, a 9-1-1 dispatcher who routinely faces high-stress situations or an emergency room attendant who just administered to a horrifically maimed patient.
One of Lee’s more satisfying tasks was working with rookie rural firemen and young emergency medical technicians at Missoula Emergency Services, Inc.
“Many times when those people go through their first traumatic thing – fatality or accident or fire or doing CPR for the first time – to be able to sit down with them afterward and help them to sort out the emotions and help them learn how to deal with the emotional aspects of the job in a healthy way, that was very fulfilling,” he said.
Missoula's emergency responders in general are "just awesome people," Lee said. "The general public has no idea what they deal with on a weekly basis, as far as the deaths and just the sad things that they end up having to deal with."
In recent years, he paid close attention to staff at the Missoula County Detention Center on Mullan Road.
“One of the things I talk to them about is they have to deal on a daily basis with the people that our society says shouldn’t be on our streets,” Lee said. “In some ways, they’re doing a life sentence 12 hours at a time, because they’re inside the same facility that everybody else is, and they have to talk with and deal with all the inmates and the mentally ill people.”
If he had one wish for Missoula, it would be to find a way to offer a secure mental health treatment facility, he said.
There are two things Chuck Lee disliked most about being a chaplain in the sheriff’s office.
“There have been some really sad coroner calls that involve children, and they’re just sad all the way around,” he said.
Almost as wearing have been what Lee calls the “internal struggles, whether it be here in the sheriff’s department or other departments.”
His department was divided last year by the bitter political contest to replace Carl Ibsen as sheriff. It pitted Ibsen’s undersheriff, Josh Clark, and the eventual winner, T.J. McDermott. The campaign and its aftermath have been littered with human rights complaints and allegations of wrongdoing.
“Those things are really hard on personnel,” Lee said. “No matter what side you’re on, no matter who’s right or who’s wrong, who’s telling the truth or who’s exaggerating, it’s hard on everybody that’s here, because it’s a reflection on everybody.”
Lee said he tried hard not to choose sides, though he was certainly tugged one way and the other.
“It’s just a difficult situation. It makes you kind of understand how kids feel when moms and dads fight,” he said.
His last official day on the job was June 30. The Lees close on the sale of their home in the C.S. Porter School neighborhood this week. Then they’ll be off for Vermont, where they’re in the process of buying another home to begin their next chapter.
Undersheriff Johnson said the sheriff’s office will be looking for a new chaplain, but it’ll remain a contracted position rather than an employee position.
“I will be amazed if they find somebody who has the commitment of Chuck Lee. Amazed,” Chase said. “He just was so many things to so many people.”
True to his nature, Lee will bow out with grace and humor.
“I’d just like to tell everybody in Missoula County thank you for all your support,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who did financial and other kinds of things. They helped me to make a difference. Wow, that almost sounds sad. I’m preaching my own funeral, hear that?”