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A closeup with mortality

Before a sudden stroke, his lens recorded life from Paris to Plant City. Now Bud Lee's friends want to set things right.

Published January 18, 2004

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe 2002]
These Bud Lee photos of life in Port Tampa adorn the entrance to its community center.

Bud Lee’s photos captured the battle between residents and police officers during rioting in Newark, N.J., in 1967. The photo, above, of a 12-year-old boy wounded in the cross fire won Life magazine’s photographer of the year award for Lee, below.
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Bud Lee’s creative spirit helped put Ybor City on the map as a thriving arts center, before the high rents and nightclubs took over.
[Photo by Bud Lee]
Bud Lee’s photograph of Clayton Moore, whose days as the Lone Ranger were past, is “a little comical, a little sad,” says USF film professor Charles Lyman.
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Son Thomas Lee pushes his dad on a stroll through his Plant City neighborhood, along with Thomas’ wife, Caroline. “Coming here was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bud Lee says.
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Peggy Lee welcomes her husband home for his first visit in five months. She doesn’t see the same spark in him. “Everything’s slowed down,” she says.

PLANT CITY - A man in a Santa Claus suit makes his way down the hall of the nursing home. He stops for one-sided conversations with slumped figures in wheelchairs, Cabbage Patch dolls wedged in the crooks of their arms. The air smells of sodden diapers.

From his own wheelchair at the far end of the hall, Bud Lee watches the man approach. He begins to sing softly: "Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus. . . ."

You can tell something is about to happen, that the endearing and dark elements that have for years distinguished Lee's photography are about to come together right in the hallway of the nursing home.

But five months have passed since Lee has touched a camera. On Aug. 8, he was driving to Lakeland to pick up photos he had taken for a magazine assignment, and the next thing he knew he was having a stroke in a Popeye's restaurant. A second, larger stroke that night paralyzed his left side.

He has spent most of his time since then cooped up in this nursing home, a place residents rarely leave unless they have died. He spent his working life in constant motion, chasing subjects around Europe and the United States. Now he relies on a hydraulic lift to get in and out of bed.

The sight of this volunteer Santa seems to have rekindled his dormant wit. "Here, Santa," Lee says, trying to press a fistful of peppermints into his white-gloved palm. The man in the costume is momentarily confused by the role reversal.

"What do you want this year?" Santa Claus asks, sounding as if he were talking to a child instead of a 62-year-old man.

"To get out of this place," Lee says.

This comes out so clearly it seems to startle the man. He laughs - part forced jollity, part cocktail party nervousness. "Okay, we'll see what we can do."

* * *

In the 1960s, when he was working steadily for Esquire magazine, Lee once photographed the Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, drawing a gun on his own reflection in a gaudy bathroom mirror.

The effect, says Charles Lyman, a film professor at the University of South Florida, who is doing a documentary on Lee, is "a little comical, a little sad, too, in the way that it can be when the parade has passed by."

On another assignment, Lee posed Italian film director Federico Fellini next to a scale model of a stegosaurus; "You are crazy like me," Fellini told him. This pleased Lee very much.

Some years later, once he had established himself in Tampa, Lee organized an homage to his cinematic idol. He called it "Fellini's Birthday Party and Variety Show." There were child tap dancers and even a transvestite Shirley Temple.

At the evening's climax, Lee brought a phone onto the stage of the Tampa Theatre. He dialed Italy, where it was the middle of the night. A groggy voice answered.

"Then everybody sang happy birthday to Fellini," says Stewart Lippe, who performed that evening as a juggler. "I wasn't sure if it really was Fellini. I think years later I found out it wasn't. But it really doesn't matter. It was such a great moment."

For nearly 40 years, Bud Lee has put his idiosyncratic spin on the world, mostly through his still photographs, but also as a videographer, a teacher, a collector of folk art and an impresario of wild costume balls. His work is in the Tampa Museum of Art and the Port Tampa community center.

Lee's business card - "Bud Lee - Picture Maker. Paris, New York, Plant City" - sums up the perspective of a man who has seen large parts of the world and concluded that few things are as entertaining as the stuff in his own back yard.

"He opened my eyes to all the interesting, oddball people in town," says Paul Wilborn, arts czar for the city of Tampa, who first met Lee in Ybor City in the late '70s. "He found a way to bring them all together."

Now he's doing it again.

* * *

At first, Lee's hospital bills were paid by the insurance his wife, Peggy, had from her teaching job. That ran out two months after he was moved from Lakeland Regional Medical Center to a convalescent home in Plant City, across from the Strawberry Festival grounds.

"The insurance people said he wasn't progressing fast enough," Peggy Lee says. "Which is ludicrous, because the neurologist said it was going to be snail's pace progress."

There was talk that they might divorce so Bud could qualify for indigent care. They ended up taking a mortgage out on their Plant City home.

"We had it paid off," Peggy says. "Not anymore."

Lee needs daily physical rehabilitation if he is to regain use of his left side, or at least compensate for the loss of mobility. Without it, it would be difficult for him to move back home. He requires round-the-clock care and medication.

The prospect that for lack of money Lee might not fully recover, or at least return home, alarmed his friends. "The first thing is to get him out of there and home," says David Audet, Lee's longtime friend and collaborator.

But care is expensive.

A few months ago, Monica Naugle, a fellow Plant City artist, combed through Lee's tattered address book, which is held together by a rubber band. She sent out appeals to 150 people, asking for financial assistance. "That brought in $4,000," she says. But that doesn't even cover a month's worth of bills. Between the nursing home and the medications, Lee's family needs to come up with about $6,000 a month.

Other artists, led by Audet, broached the possibility of a benefit auction. It seemed a natural idea; auctions were one of the ways in the '70s and '80s that those same artists sustained themselves before their careers had achieved any traction.

More than 40 artists and friends are donating works for the event, which will be Saturday at the Lotus Room in Tampa. Gathering this assortment of work - steel sculpture, pottery, handmade glass lamps and even some of Lee's own work - has prompted a good deal of reflection about the influence Lee had on the local arts scene.

"He was always community-oriented rather than academically oriented. He was much too active for that kind of passive role," Lippe says. "Bud's a shaman."

* * *

It's somewhat ironic now that someone whose career had such an iconoclastic streak would have gotten his start in the military. In early 1964, overweight and unsure of where he "fit in the pecking order of men," Lee joined the Army.

"I was amazed at how well I did," he says. "The Army is a great place for anyone with brains."

Trained as a photo lab technician, he was sent to Germany with the 3rd Armored Division and began to take photos of his own. With a travel budget and as much free film as he could desire, soon Lee was seeing his work regularly on the cover of Stars and Stripes. In a sea of grip-and-grin shots, Lee's artfully composed photo essays, which always seemed to find room for "a shapely fraulein," stood out.

"I was the only GI subscribing to Vogue and Harper's Bazaar," Lee says. "I wanted to be a fashion photographer."

In 1966, he was named Military Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association. The photo that got him the most attention showed a screaming soldier, his face caked in mud and straw. It looked like some hellish battle cry in the fields of Vietnam, but it was actually a cook in a training exercise.

"Stars and Stripes didn't care that it was staged," Lee says.

He left the Army in early 1967 and tried without success to get freelance work in New York City. That spring, he went to collect his photography award at the Missouri School of Journalism. In his acceptance speech, he bemoaned the lack of work. An editor from Life magazine stood up in the audience and asked if he could be in New York on Monday. It turned out to be an eventful few months.

He was taking pictures at the New York Stock Exchange when he got a call to go to Newark to cover the rioting. He and a reporter arrived in Newark in a black stretch limousine. "We made the driver take his chauffeur's jacket off," Lee says.

The worst of the rioting was over, but some of the looters offered to grab beer for the reporters from a nearby liquor store. Coming out of the store, one of the looters was shot and killed by a police officer. A 12-year-old boy, Joey Bass Jr., was wounded by stray shotgun fire.

"I always wondered what would have happened if we hadn't been there," Lee says.

Lee's photo of Joey curled in a question mark on the pavement was the cover of the July 28 issue. That image won him Life's photographer of the year award.

For the next decade, he freelanced for Esquire and dozens of other magazines and newspapers in the United States and London. After Charles Manson was arrested for the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, he went to California to document a story the Esquire editors had headlined "California Evil."

It was a whirlwind tour of the state's most deviant residents, including Princess Leda, self-proclaimed Acid Goddess. Lee accidentally ate some fruit laced with a whopping amount of LSD and ended up in jail for a night handcuffed to a transvestite.

In 1972, he started a photographers workshop at the University of Iowa, a program similar to the acclaimed writers workshop that has shaped the careers of so many successful fiction writers. He married his first wife during that time, but she was a dancer and an actor, and she detested the Midwest.

He became very ill after a photo shoot in Mexico and very soon after, his marriage ended. When he recovered, he went looking for a family.

* * *

"It was a goal of mine to go to a small town and marry someone who liked kids," Lee says.

He signed on to the new federal Artists-in-Schools program, which sent him first to a rural town in Georgia. Later, he asked for a transfer to Florida. He was sent to Tampa. "I thought it was near Miami."

It was at the Plant City school to which he was assigned that he met Peggy Laseter, who had grown up in Plant City and was teaching. One of his first projects was a remake of Gone With the Wind using Peggy's students as the actors. She'd never met anyone like him before.

Bud and Peggy married in Ybor City, in front of a statue of motherhood on Seventh Avenue. There were 12 bridesmaids; anyone who had a long dress qualified.

For a time, Bud and Peggy were living in a storefront on Seventh Avenue that Bud rented for $85 a month. Upstairs was an aging prostitute named Black Mary.

The storefront is now a deli, and not long ago Bud asked the owner if he could put a plaque in the floor to commemorate where his first son, Thomas, was conceived. The owner said yes.

He and Peggy had twins, Parker and Steckley, a year after Thomas. "It was like having triplets," Peggy says.

He tried to strike a balance between the stability he craved and the novelty of exciting freelance assignments. It wasn't always easy.

"Settling down freaked him completely," Peggy says. "It took me a long time to accept that he'd be gone for three months at a time. I'd just ask him to leave me a note in the morning saying whether he'd be back that night or on the road."

But by the time their fourth child arrived, a daughter named Charlotte, Bud had irrevocably woven himself into the fabric of the Tampa arts scene.

He was a founding member of the Artists and Writers Group. He proclaimed Tampa to be "the arts center of the world." He painted a spot on the floor of his Ybor City apartment. "The center has to be somewhere," he said. "Why not here?"

In 1979, Lee, Audet, Wilborn and a small host of others organized the first Artists and Writers Ball. Playfully debauched, the ball was intended as an antidote to the Gasparilla events dominated by the elitist Ye Mystic Krewe. The live nude tableaux and the large boa constrictor made the distinction clear.

Held in the Cuban Club in Ybor City, the elaborately themed parties, with names like "Cowboys and Indians in Love" and "Bad Taste in Outer Space," attracted thousands to a part of the city virtually ignored by respectable society.

Soon, it became the must-have ticket. "What is nice," Lee said in 1988, "is that you can have a place where the gentrified, the yuppie crowd, can feel comfortable with the transvestites and the street people."

The tiny amount of profit funded a magazine called Tabloid, which went bankrupt for lack of advertising, and the Artists and Writers Cafe, which didn't make any money either. "Money was never the point," Audet says.

The balls ended in 1992, done in by rising insurance costs. The artists' community scattered gradually, forced out of Ybor by rising rents and the inexorable transformation of the district into a Bourbon Street knockoff.

Lee, having long since decamped to Plant City, sustained himself shooting for city guidebooks and local publications such as the Weekly Planet. In his free time, he would ride the streetcar in Ybor, stop in for some barbecue at Fred's Farmer's Market in Plant City and take leisurely drives along back roads looking for undiscovered folk artists.

"Coming here was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says.

* * *

Few residents at the nursing home get as many visitors as Lee. They bring him McDonald's coffee and Publix cheesecake. But these treats can't compensate for the loss of freedom.

Some days are better than others, but overall Peggy is surprised how well he's coping. "I really was afraid he'd lose it after a week," she says.

Because he had lost half his eyesight, he would write only on the right side of the page. If someone spoke to him from his left side, he wouldn't be able to hear them, even though his hearing was not affected.

His eyesight has improved, and he has regained some use of his left side. But with that has come pain, which the doctors tell him is a sign that neurons are reconnecting. Still, it sometimes distracts him from creative thoughts.

Peggy brought him a couple of disposable cameras. "He's tried some, but mostly he leaves them alone."

Lynn Waddell, a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, worked on several stories with Lee for theWeekly Planet. Lee threw himself into assignments, she says, whether it was a profile of local porn stars or a survey of people's closets.

"He probably will never be able to do all the things he once did," Waddell says, "but I think the therapy could help dramatically."

"I want to go back to doing what I was doing before," Lee says. "I'd like to lecture. I have so much to say about my work." He knows working again is predicated on getting out of the nursing home and regaining mobility. But his wife doesn't see the same unquenchable spark of creativity.

"Everything's slowed down," she says. "He'd always be working on something at the kitchen table, pasting things into his scrapbooks, making collages, looking at negatives. He'll do that now if you prompt him, but it's not all-consuming like it was before."

* * *

A few days after the new year, a van comes to the convalescent center to pick him up for a brief visit home. It's been five months nearly to the day since the stroke, and this is the first time he will have been home.

Lee has a white towel draped around his neck, just like he always did when he was out on assignment. The sun is getting the better of the morning chill. Lee mops his forehead nervously.

"I'm so mad. They got me so early, and now I've got to pee," he says.

Thomas, his son, standing behind the wheelchair, pats him on the shoulders and urges him not to think about it. "Practice that Zen Buddhism you taught me as a kid."

Once he is home, he pets as many of the cats as can be rounded up. They're all named after characters in J.D. Salinger stories. Franny never shows. He watches a video he took of a folk artist named Jesse Snow he discovered years before near Winter Park.

"He was an itinerant citrus picker," Lee says. "He was illiterate. He got all his info from TV. That's why all his subjects have AIDS, because that was the big scare back then."

Then the van comes to collect him.

"Bye, sweetie," Peggy says, kissing him on the top of the head. "Did you have fun?"

"Yeah. It was fun."

IF YOU GO: Local artists are uniting to raise money at the Bud Lee and Friends Show, a benefit for Bud Lee, from 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday at the Lotus Room Gallery, 1101 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission is $10. There will be live and silent auctions.

[Last modified January 15, 2004, 10:06:04]

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