Laughter and Tears: Remembering Lee Eshleman

Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop

“My heart is achin’, for you, Mr. Lee,
My heart is achin’, for you, Mr. Lee,
He’s the handsomest sweetie
That you’ll ever see … ”

Often, upon encountering Lee Eshleman, I would bop up to him singing lines from the Bobbettes’ 1957 musical ditty, “Mr. Lee.” For a long time, he didn’t believe this song existed. So I had to dub a copy for him. He became a believer.

At one point, Lee drew a caricature of me wearing a tie with the point inserted in a record. As I spun it around, the disc played “Louie, Louie, Oh, no …”

We talked often about music in those pre-electronic-mail days. I saved correspondence in which we went back and forth trying to see how many music groups we could identify with a color in their name, i.e., Moody Blues, Deep Purple, Lemon Pipers, et. al.

That was the inimitable Lee Eshleman of Harrisonburg, Va., a blithe spirit who profoundly influenced my life for nearly 20 years. Now, Lee is gone at age 43. He lost a long struggle with depression and took his life on May 17 at his home.

He left us too soon, and much too fiercely. The quiet is deafening, a loss that defies words. Lee regularly gave himself in so many ways as partner with Ted Swartz as the theatrical duo, Ted and Lee. They had become household names in the Mennonite Church and far beyond as many people came to experience the special treat that their on-stage presence and presentations afforded.

I last saw Ted and Lee together on stage in December 2006 with the incomparable Ingrid DeSanctis and their retelling of the Christmas story, DoveTale. I must have seen it a half dozen times since its premiere; each time, it was a fresh nativity for me.

The on- and off-stage chemistry between Ted and Lee was remarkable. Even more, their material was fresh, imaginative, often slightly askew. They pushed the envelope, but never resorted to denigrating people or off-color humor.

They had uncanny ability to make biblical characters seem so human, vulnerable and yet so believable in full-length productions like Fish-Eyes, The Creation Chronicles and most recently, Live at Jacob’s Ladder. Diverse audiences seemed to relate to their laughter-laced messages of hope for us denizens of a wearisome world.

Lee Eshleman was born Aug. 28, 1963, in Richmond, Va., the son of J. Robert and Rosalee Hartman Eshleman. An Eastern Mennonite High School graduate, he went on to earn a degree in art from Eastern Mennonite University in 1986. I knew Lee from that point on.

From 1987-1990, we worked together in the communications department at EMU, where Lee was a graphic designer. I experienced Lee’s incredible creative outbursts firsthand, but I also observed the dark side of this enigmatic man. On occasion, Lee’s energy level was such that the small cubicle housing his layout table could barely contain him. Other times, he would sit and count specks on the wall of his windowless office space.

Amid the give and take and lively banter that typified our working relationship, we had our serious moments as well. I knew he was troubled, but to what extent, I simply didn’t know or didn’t ask.

Of his own volition, Lee left his EMU employment and sought professional help. He entered a facility at Rockville, Md., for treatment, first as a resident and then an outpatient.

He worked part time as a waiter while continuing to develop and present comedy material with colleague Ted Swartz. These efforts evolved into their first full-length presentation, The Armadillo Tour. Their creative output and reputation quickly spread.

Community Mennonite Church, where both Lee and Ted and their families are members, was shaken to the core at the news of Lee’s death. The following evening, a grieving service was held at the church. Sunday morning, May 20, the Eastern Mennonite High School Touring Choir led the worship service at Community, where Lee and Ted and their families are members.

Early in the service, co-pastor Meg Wightman lit a pillar candle while the choir sang. The music – much of it pensive, quiet, moving toward a more upbeat, praise-oriented close – was perhaps the best way to begin to grapple with the circumstances. The words and melodies seemed to provide a balm, a safe haven, a place to ask, “Why, O Lord,” and to be reminded that “… I am with you and will never leave or forsake you.”

Some 1,200 came to the local funeral home for visitation with the family on Sunday afternoon, May 20. More than 800 people from near and far attended the moving memorial service held in Lehman Auditorium at EMU the following day.

One can scarcely comprehend the devastating blow this is to the Eshleman family – spouse Reagan and children Nicolas, Sarah and Gabe – as well as to Ted and Sue Swartz and their families.

Community Mennonite has established an Eshleman Memorial Fund to assist with some immediate and longer-range needs.

“What made Ted & Lee ‘work’ across denominations and with many different audiences was that they were genuine, they believed the stories they were portraying, and they helped us see ourselves in the characters they portrayed,” said their manager, Sheri Hartzler. “What they did was totally unique, always funny, and yet always grabbed you when you least expected it.”

Hartzler, who managed the pair since 1995, said Ted and Lee were booked for 20 venues for the rest of this year and already had 10 inquiries for 2008. This is fewer than previous years, as they were preparing to do two weeks of video shooting for a major project for the United Methodist Publishing House.

She hopes that DoveTale can return for the Christmas season and that the work begun by Ted and Lee will continue, but “it’s too early to know what the format may look like.”

If there’s an upside to this heartbreaking episode, it’s a recognition that Lee left a legacy of profound laughter that can help assuage the tears. Much of the duo’s original material has been committed to print and to video that we can return to again and again, to remember, ponder and help us reflect anew on both our foibles and our need to experience God’s unconditional love.

I am thankful to have some of Lee’s original art, print pieces and a number of profusely illustrated letters and affirmative notes from over the years that I will treasure and turn to when I want to remember and celebrate his life – which I intend to do often.

The Ted and Lee TheaterWorks website (www.tedandlee.com) is filled with reflections and tributes to Lee. One respondent said it well: “Ted and Lee have brought to the Mennonite church, and many other denominations, the sorely needed light-heartedness, candor, humor and introspection that are often missing. I cannot but think the disease process, with all its chemical ramifications, found the opportunity to overcome this beautiful person. I wish I could have held him in my arms, long before this terrible tragedy. Now I can only hold him in my heart.”

I miss you, friend Lee, and I hold close the memories of the many times you spoke to me, in person and through your incredible character portrayals and commentaries on human frailty and our potential to reach out for new glimpses of God’s amazing grace.

Like a surreal sketch you did that was a personal favorite, I will say, “See you at the Cathartic Cafe.”

Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.

(Originally published 06-13-07)

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