Opinion

WALLY'S WORLD: Stehr legacy is alive and well at the Lee

The first time I met Les Stehr I thought he was a rather grumpy fellow and, at least on a superficial level, my first impressions were correct. (But, as bartender Tamara Dedmon points out, most of his gruffness was just show.) He didn’t seem especially sociable and he certainly wasn’t a party animal. Consequently, I never got to know Les very well, despite the fact that the Lee lounge has more or less been my home port for the past 30 years.

He was raised on a wheat farm on the wind-blown plains of eastern Washington. After a five-year stretch in the U.S. Air Force and four years at Washington State University, he somehow became involved in a business partnership involving the Lee Hotel and Restaurant in 1974. Around 1977, he bought the entire operation.

In many respects, those were the glory days in the Lee lounge. Many of the town’s heavy-hitters – Art and Sam Lafromboise, Dr. Adams, Art Gamblin, Carl Degross, and others, to name only a few – used to congregate there and Les could have accurately been tagged as Enumclaw’s unofficial mayor. The local gambling cartel was located in the basement and, even though Les wasn’t a big-time gambler like some of his associates, he was known to place a bet or two if the odds seemed favorable.

And speaking of gambling, Les was into the ponies and became a legend of sorts at Emerald Downs. He bought horses, sold horses, raised horses, ran horses and, needless to say, placed a few bets. And, I hasten to add, he came out far ahead of the game.

Les also was an avid golfer. Here again, he was known to place a wager or two, if the odds seemed right. After 18 holes, you might have caught sight of him in the clubhouse.

Personally, I can only remember Les having a drink on two occasions. Both were at Lee employee Christmas parties.

He ran the restaurant for approximately 34 years, then sold the business to his stepdaughter, Diane Mills, in 2011. Thereafter, in order to keep busy, he continued to manage the restaurant’s financial records. In his cramped, little office beside the stairs to the basement – the desk, chairs, and carpet looked like anachronisms from the 1920s – he invented his own paper-and-ink system for filing financial statements that no one short of a Hindu holyman or a Harvard mathematician could hope to decipher…and you had to wonder if the Harvard prof could actually succeed. Diane certainly couldn’t. And yet, Les could find whatever Diane wanted to see with astounding speed. Ask him for the speadsheet for Mother’s Day in 1988 and he’d find it within a few seconds. He never cared for computers. They were too slow.

In keeping with Sinatra’s hit song, Les generally lived his life his way, guided by a moral compass and social compassion that most of his friends and employees may not have been aware of. When hotel tenants came up a little short of cash and couldn’t afford their prescription medicine, Les would extend them a “loan” – in quote marks because he never expected to be repaid. On occasion, he drove customers home when they had too much to drink. He cared about the community, promoted various plans and innovations, and fought for certain physical improvements. His staunchly conservative political views mellowed in later years and he voted for Obama in the last election.

He was fond of a quip attributed to Joe E. Lewis, a comedian of sorts in the 1930s and ‘40s: “You only live once – but if you work it right, once is enough.”

So, one afternoon a few weeks ago, after finishing lunch with some friends, he excused himself and left the table to take care of some financial records that he’d been tending to every day for the past 35 years. And that was that.

 

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