Love for the Lees

Dick and Portia Lee
Kristin Burdey

It all began when a young lady by the name of Portia Kohls moved to town. Hailing from the town of Sacred Heart in west-central Minnesota, Kohls had recently completed her education at Concordia University in Moorhead, majoring in elementary education with a minor in psychology. After earning her certificate in parish work, she was called to Rushford Lutheran Church in 1961. She wore many hats while in that position including secretary, leader of two youth choirs, and Sunday school teacher under the headship of Superintendent Jim Engrav.

When the church encountered a problem with the speaker system, they asked a local man by the name of Richard Lee, who had earned himself a reputation as a skilled repairman, to come and take a look. Lee was a 1952 graduate of Peterson High School raised in Pine Creek Valley, or Lee Valley to those in the know. He owned Dick Lee’s TV, a business located in the upstairs of Burt Jensen’s furniture store. Their first meeting consisted of Dick entering Portia’s office at church and asking, “Now where’s that PA system I’m supposed to look at?” Their paths did not cross again until the church council meeting a week before Valentine’s Day. Dick came to present an estimate for the necessary repairs, and then he left. Sort of. By this time, he had realized that young Portia had captured his eye, and was in danger of capturing his heart, so he did not want to squander the opportunity to initiate a conversation.

Dick drove around the block a couple of times, hoping to catch her coming out after the meeting. He headed up highway 30 more than once, telling himself, ‘I’m going home’, only to reconsider and turn around to try again. Portia lived in the Bjorge house, known today as the white parsonage, so there was a pretty narrow window of opportunity to catch her after the meeting. “He caught me as I was putting my key in the door,” Portia said with a smile, leading Dick to say, “She almost got away.”

He asked if she would like to go grab a bite to eat, but she had already had supper, so he asked if she would mind accompanying him while he grabbed one. “He was a very handsome young man,” she recalled, prompting a hearty laugh from her husband. Deciding he would be safe to go out with, Portia joined Dick on a trip over to Ruth’s on 2nd Street in Winona, where they hit it off immediately.

After that night they started seeing each other regularly. Things were going well, although Dick knew that he had something important yet to tell Portia: that he had an adorable four-year-old son. Portia had already learned the tragic backstory: that Rick’s mother had been killed in a car accident when he was just two years old. Undaunted by the prospect, Portia asked Dick to bring the young lad along to supper, beginning the relationship of a lifetime.

Portia had grown a little bit suspicious because Dick seemed to be taking an awfully close look at her Concordia ring. “I had to get the size of the ring so that I could get the right size from Wendell Norby,” he confessed. Dick got down on one knee after Portia’s Christmas cantata in 1963 and asked her to be his wife. Portia said yes, and the two set a date.  They were married six months later on June 14th, 1964, in Sacred Heart. “A lot of people drove a long way to be there,” recalled Portia, appreciating the sacrifice of the friends and family who took the drive to her hometown on a Sunday afternoon.

After three years working at the church, Portia took her first teaching job at the Big Anderson Country School. “It was a brand-new experience,” she described, remembering the outdoor restrooms and the floors so cold you kept your boots on in the wintertime. “It seems like I had to carry a lot of books in for you, too,” her husband recalled. Two years later, she was offered a position at the Peterson school under Principal Maynard Thompson, where she taught sixth grade half the day and Title one the other half.

Meanwhile, Dick had more work than he could handle alone as owner of the TV shop, so he partnered with Rushford graduate Jerry Henze to run Rushford TV Service, starting out with repairs, and eventually branching out into sales. He got to know a lot of people in the surrounding area by making house calls, so the Lees easily became familiar friends to many. Dick and Portia moved into Peterson in February of 1970, seven years to the day after their first date. In 1973 they were blessed with a son named Christopher.

Fifty-six years of marriage have flown by for the Lees, and they have rejoiced to see their family grow with the addition of spouses, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. They spent many hours babysitting their grandkids, helping with homework and making their favorite after-school snacks.

In addition to their work and caring for their families, Dick and Portia both became very active in the business of serving others. Dick spent twenty-five years as the Mayor of Peterson, overseeing such projects as bringing a sewer plant to town, fixing up the bridges, and keeping everyone supplied with water while refurbishing the water tower. Dick also spent many years doing jail ministry with Merle Evenson, going up to Preston every Sunday after dinner for a service. Portia continues to play the piano and the organ at church, as she has done for many years. As a team, Dick and Portia have been keeping faithful visitations at the nursing home in Rushford. “Ever since Helen Anderson was in the home,” Dick explained. “We began visiting her, and just kept going.” Every Friday night the couple would head up to the Good Shepherd, visiting and praying with residents, and providing much-needed fellowship with friends.

At the time of the interview, Dick hadn’t done his Valentine’s Day shopping yet. But the couple insists that they don’t need any sort of extravagant celebration to recognize their lifetime of love. “We just enjoy being together,” Portia says with a smile. Whether going for walks, watching a favorite show, or fishing on a lake up north, the Lees are appreciative of the life they have together. “We have had a full and blessed life,” says Portia. “We thank God for all the blessings he has given our family.” Dick agreed, insisting that they can’t complain about anything. “We have so many things to be thankful for. You can’t help but thank Him.”