The Lees of Knoxville pay it forward

Betty BeanWest Knox

Chuck Lee said what he always says when he goes off somewhere by himself: “Loveya-bye.”

He tucked his “honey-do” list into his pocket and headed out the front door and his wife, Linda, knew he’d be gone awhile.

In addition to the list of stuff she needed for him to pick up, he had handicapped parking spots to patrol and a pile of bamboo poles in the back of his Escalade to give away to anybody who looked like they needed a good walking stick. He made sure the plastic tubs of rubber tips that he pops onto the business end of the poles were where they were supposed to be. Then he took off to downtown Bearden, looking to hand out his 2,095th walking stick.

He has a ritual he observes each time he gives away a stick:

When the recipient thanks him, he tells them to pay it forward by doing a random act of kindness for a stranger, first chance they get. And then he tells them, “God bless you.”

Chuck Lee customizes a walking stick for a short-legged friend.

Meanwhile Linda, who hasn’t been feeling well in recent months, went back to her sunroom studio, which is stacked with reproductions of her paintings of local landmarks – the Powell Airplane, Ayres Hall, Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon, the Bijou, Westwood – that she used to paint on commission. She’s stopped accepting money for her work, preferring to give paintings to non-profit organizations to use for fundraisers. She hopes her health will mend enough to allow her to get back to painting.

The Lees have a longstanding and well-earned reputation as one of the most civically engaged, philanthropic couples in town, but they’re slowing down a bit. Chuck is 78 now, and Linda won’t let him go down the hill to chop bamboo unless their grandsons go with him – he took a tumble and rolled all the way down the hill the last time he went bamboo hunting alone (although there was that one time he sneaked down there by himself last month and cut 10 new canes).

They met in 1973, after one of Linda’s friends urged Chuck to go meet Linda, who was working at the family business, Parker Brothers Hardware. Chuck went by to check her out, and was mightily impressed.

“She was gorgeous!” he said. “Absolutely gorgeous. Had a figure that’d knock your hat in the creek.”

So he asked her out, and they were married 10 weeks after their first date.

“We’ve been all over the U.S. on back roads,” Linda said. “Most of our dates were going to hear Tex Hyatt at his piano bar.”

“I’d sing along with Tex,” Chuck said. “I used to have a band called V-8 when I was a kid in high school (in LaFollette). I had V-8 plastered on my old green ’52 Mercury.” The high point of his musical career was opening for Peggy Lee.

Parker Brothers Hardware, founded in 1923 by Linda’s grandfather and great uncle, was a Knoxville institution. The Lees took it over in 1980 when Linda inherited it from her mother, Helen Parker Thompson. They ran it until 2005, when they sold it and retired.

But during those 25 years, Parker Brothers was the beating heart of Bearden. The Lees sold all the usual hardware stuff plus useful gizmos and remedies like corncob back scratchers and poison ivy remedies. Linda had a growing Bearden history display out front.

One year they planted a seed that spawned the local farmers market scene when they let a local grower sell produce in their parking lot. The attention he attracted drew in other farmers, and for 14 years, there was a full-fledged market in their back lot every Friday.

“They wouldn’t let us pay for a tomato,” Linda said. She baked molasses cookies for them in return.

And there was the time in the mid-90s when the Lees went to war. A developer was looking to put together a deal to build a Home Depot in a Bearden subdivision off Old Weisgarber Road. The Lees organized the resistance and Chuck administered the coup de gras when he bought an option on one of the houses smack in the middle of the parcel the developer was putting together. And that was the end of it.

Despite their health problems, the Lees have enjoyed their retirement, have remained active in the community and are generous donors to good causes, although they haven’t been able to attend dinners and social events like they used to. But they’re not planning to stop.

“Chuck’s handed out over 2,000 walking sticks,” Linda said. “I asked him, ‘Honey, when are you going to stop?’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. At 5,000, maybe?’”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *