Bud Lee, a force behind the lens

Whatever happened to . . .

Published May 20, 2007

"A closeup with mortality"; Jan. 18, 2004; See past coverage at life.tampabay.com.

THE STORY: Plant City photographer Bud Lee spent his working life in constant motion, chasing subjects around Europe and the United States. Then a stroke felled him in August 2003. Suddenly the creative force that had helped define Tampa's arts scene in the 1970s and '80s was confined to a convalescent home. With his left side almost completely paralyzed, Lee needed a hydraulic lift to get in and out of bed. But he hadn't lost the endearingly offbeat, sometimes dark, sense of humor that infused so much of his work, as when a volunteer Santa Claus visited the nursing home residents and found Lee waiting at the end of the hall.

FROM THE STORY: "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."

THE REST OF THE STORY: More than three years have passed since Lee's stroke. He is still in the same nursing home he had once been so desperate to leave.

"I'm still here, " he says. Behind the statement of fact you can hear an appeal to be remembered.

"What happened to the fearless Bud Lee?" his wife, Peggy, said she once asked him.

"He went away, " he answered.

He hasn't picked up a camera in months, but he paints and draws regularly. "Just whatever I fancy. Pretty abstract."

On Thursdays a friend takes him to the YMCA for a swim.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: Life around him has charged ahead in marvelous ways.

One son graduated this week in New York with a degree in architecture. One daughter is a public defender in Gainesville, and the other daughter will soon begin work for renowned artist James Rosenquist. Three months ago, Lee's eldest son, Thomas, and his wife had a baby boy. Madoc Brand Irick Lee visited his grandfather in the nursing home.

Who does he look like, someone asked Lee.