Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Academy
By ALEXANDER WILLIS
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The words of scripture Matthew 5:4 can be difficult for those in grief to truly grasp and live by, but if any one person best exemplifies these words, it might just be Tennessee’s current governor, Governor Bill Lee.
Lee, who’s experienced his own intense periods of mourning, came to speak Thursday at the Christ Presbyterian Academy (CPA) just outside of Brentwood about his life’s challenges, and how he managed to come out a better person because of them. Lee also had a lot to say about the academy itself, which had played a major role in his life.
“I have rich, deep, bitter-sweet memories of this building,” Lee said. “This place occupied a large piece of my life, and it’s weird to drive up to CPA and know there’s people there that don’t even know who our family is, and yet there are people sitting in pews that have known me since I was a child.”
All of Lee’s four children attended CPA; Jessica, Sarah, and twins Caleb and Jacob, with his youngest child graduating just five years ago. It was also at CPA where Lee would meet his future wife and current First Lady of Tennessee, Maria Lee, who was a substitute teacher at the academy, and who would also quickly become a favorite of Lee’s boys.
In the late 90s, Lee had been running a business, was married to his first wife, Carol Ann Lee, had children, and described his life as perfect.
“Certainly my life is bitter-sweet, I used that word a few minutes ago,” Lee said. “I lived a life that most men dreamed of; I went to college, met my soon-to-be wife and married, started having children, loved the Lord with all my heart, had a beautiful family, a beautiful house, beautiful life and a great job.”
It would be in the year 2000 when tragedy struck Lee’s family. Carol, an avid horse rider, suffered an accident one day that would change the Lee family’s future forever.
“I was home and I found her, and she was lifelined, and she died four days later,” Lee said. “Interestingly, probably seven years before that, we had had a baby that died the day she was born – Cynthia Kate – and I remember when that happened, Carol Ann had gone on a walk down the road, she came back up and she said ‘the Lord spoke to me, and he told me I’ve been chosen.’ I will never forget that, I remember sitting there saying ‘what do you mean by that?’ She [said] ‘I don’t know, I just think he says I’ve been chosen, chosen to experience something most people don’t.’”
“I remember driving down Old Hickory Boulevard right after Carol Ann died, and I thought, ‘oh my god, I’ve been chosen,’ and I remembered that conversation that we had,” Lee continued. “It started this whole process in me about this thing that had happened to me, [and] this process that was happening to me in the meantime.”
This wouldn’t be the end of tragedy striking Lee, who after losing his wife, would almost lose another family member.
“My oldest daughter, who went through a lot of trauma through losing her mom, got up from school and drove home and put a gun to her head and shot herself,” Lee said. “It didn’t kill her, and that phone call was maybe more traumatic than the moment that I found out that Carol Ann was being lifelined.”
He added, “…soon after that, my business just about went bankrupt. Four years earlier I have [had] a life that most men only dream of, and suddenly I found myself thinking ‘gosh, this life is a nightmare.’ But all the while, there really was something profoundly remarkable happening to me about my perspective of life; what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what’s not. A lot of times, people’s experiences like that will make them really question everything about the lord, and somehow for me, by his grace, it just caused me to go much deeper with him.”
It was during this time of tragedy that the First Presbyterian Church helped console Lee’s family, something Lee said had it not been for that, he would not have been where he was today.
“There are certainly several people in this room for whom I would not be here today, except for you,” Lee said, scanning the pews across CPA’s worship center. “I asked if I could have [Marie] as my fourth grade boys’ teacher because Carol Ann died in between third and fourth grade, and she had been Caleb’s teacher and he loved her so much. I needed them to be in the same class, I just needed to have teachers that were going to love my kids and that I could trust. I said ‘can I have [Marie] in fourth grade, and can she have both of my boys?’ The school said you can have whatever you want.”
“To moms in this school that made dinner for me and my kids for two years – for two years, I had dinner brought to my house, and delivered for me and my kids,” Lee continued. “They always had a place to spend the night… the camps, my children lived at the camps. This community was remarkable to my family and to my children, my children wouldn’t be where they are today, I wouldn’t be sitting here where I was today, because part of that redemptive story was what happens when the body of Christ functions like the body of Christ.”
Also sitting with Lee at CPA was Tennessee’s Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, a longtime friend of Lee’s. McWhorter also asked Lee to describe how his experience as governor has been, something Lee called “surreal.”
“It is still very surreal in a lot of ways, I still can hardly believe it sometimes,” Lee said. “I signed a bill today and I took out the pen, and there it said ‘Governor Bill Lee,’ and I look at it and I’m like, ‘Wow, has that really happened, do I sign there?’ It’s a very sobering feeling.”
While Lee said he was no stranger to the shock and awe that comes with serving in such a responsibility-laden position, what most excited him were the practical and real-world changes he had been able to be a part of implementing in the state, such as further supporting the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, or funding the Behavioral Health Care Safety Net.
“My first executive order was to strengthen the economies of rural Tennessee, executive order number one,” Lee said. “How cool that was for me to be able to do that, and actually execute on something that I think is important to Tennesseans. We produced the Governor’s Investment and Vocational Education Act, the Give Act, [which] provides dual credit for kids that are in vocational, technical and agricultural tracts, and it sets up hundreds [of] CTE (career technical education) programs around the state. What an incredible privilege it is to be able to be engaged in things that are going to change people’s lives for good.”
Lee’s speech ended with Lee, McWhorter, Lee’s family, and all those in attendance bowing their heads, and joining together in prayer.
“I have a belief that if the body of Christ functioned like the body of Christ should function across the state of Tennessee, half [of these] challenges we face in this state would disappear,” Lee said. “If the body of Christ functioned like CPA’s body of Christ functioned when I went through the most traumatic moments of my life, then this state would shine like a bright star in the country, and I think it can. I do believe it will, and can.”