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The Life of Fred Lee


Fred Lee was born on August 8, 1939, to missionary parents in Kunming, China. He began his healthcare career at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Kansas. As VP for marketing and development, he won several national awards for innovative approaches to patient satisfaction and loyalty. He then transitioned to senior VP at Florida Hospital, where he developed a nationally acclaimed guest relations program. Next, Disney University recruited him due to his expertise in helping hospitals achieve a culture that inspires patient and employee loyalty. He helped adapt and facilitate Disney’s healthcare version of its three-day seminar, Disney’s Approach to Quality Service, and developed its latest seminar on Customer Loyalty.

After writing If Disney Ran Your Hospital in 2004, Fred and Aura—his wife, business partner, and a former director of nursing in Orlando, Florida—traveled across the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Belgium, England, and The Netherlands. With an insider’s experience and a keen eye for cultural comparisons, he shared his passion and concepts of patient loyalty, the patient experience, and compassion of caregivers. In 2015, Fred was appointed to the “My VA Advisory Committee” by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald to share his insights with U.S. healthcare leaders.

In 2005, his book won the ACHE James A. Hamilton Book of the Year award. It has sold over 250,000 copies in English and almost 250,000 copies in Dutch, Portuguese, and Korean and is currently being translated into Mandarin Chinese expecting to be released in China in 2017. (Fred spoke fluent Mandarin.)

Fred’s greatest desire was for healthcare leaders and caregivers to instill his concepts for future generations. He will occupy a permanent place in American Healthcare’s Pantheon of Patient Loyalty, Patient Experience, and Compassion by caregivers.

Fred Lee passed away on Sunday evening, March 26, 2017, of complications from neuro-surgery due to glioblastoma. –Biography provided by Jerry F. Pogue, Fred’s friend and publisher.

The following is Fred Lee’s eulogy, written by James Londis:

Try as you might, you could not be bored around Fred Lee. Witty, quick on the repartee, anxious to be the “social director” in every group, you never knew what was next. He enjoyed an infectious zest for life. It was on full display the three weeks we traveled together in Greece some years ago. Three weeks felt like three days. Time was compressed by the intimate sharing of the turns and bumps in our lives. A closeness reserved for immediate family seemed to descend upon us. It turned a special, but still somewhat casual friendship, into a rare, lifelong respect and affection for each other.

On that trip, after commandeering my camera, Fred scoured various angles to capture the moment. His photos exposed an artist’s eye for design and form, as did his vision for the interior design of his most recent home. Even his PowerPoint presentations on the patient experience were arresting (not easy to do, believe me). His speaking, peppered with new ideas and riveting stories, mesmerized thousands for as many as six to eight hours in a day. Standing ovations were common. When he, after much cajoling by Aura, finally put in a book much of what he had developed as a consultant, his partner Jerry Pogue entered the volume in the American Hospital Association Book of the Year, the most coveted award in healthcare. And, wouldn’t you know, If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 91/2 Things You Would Do Differently won first prize. It had to be the most thrilling professional achievement of his life!

Following the award ceremony in Chicago, board members and hospital administrators who were there formed lines to get signed copies. The rest is history. Glowing reviews followed in major healthcare journals, which, of course led to extremely large orders. Speaking appointments poured in, changing Fred and Aura’s life forever. She became his travel agent, calendar supervisor, and administrative assistant. These many years later, after translation in several languages (including most recently Fred’s beloved Chinese), and appointments in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, it is now ranked as the best-selling book in healthcare history.

His public abilities, however, were balanced nicely by his private qualities. He was a thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate listener. He was also an avid reader across a wide spectrum of thought from science to theology and philosophy. When he found a passage or an essay that moved him, he would insist his friends sit and read it aloud with him so we could laugh and tear up together. He was always generous, and his family and friends knew he treasured their closeness.

An example occurred some years after our first meeting during a healthcare leadership retreat. On my 60th birthday, Fred penned this recollection and reflection on our friendship:

A Chronicle of Our Beginnings
It can now be known that our first meeting was at the
Instigation of our rebellious wives who, on the Sabbath Day,
Conspired to forego the rapture of church worship and
Indulge their illicit desire to first purchase and then drink a
Cup of coffee. You and I, priests of our family altars, who
In those days did neither drink nor desire to drink such a
Bitter, forbidden substance, nevertheless chose, in the
Tradition of our father Adam, to go along with the sins of
The wives whom the Lord gave us, rather than sit in lonely
Contemplation through the rigors of another Sabbath School
Lesson. And so, far from the pious protection of the
Worshipping congregation, the four of us communed over
The rising steam from a dark, pagan brew. In that
Unforgettable hour we found a deep and abiding connection
That has transformed into the inexplicable mystery of
Intimate friendship.
                                    Blessed be that cup of coffee.
                                    Blessed be our special closeness, forever.

Very few have ever received anything as lovely as that from a friend.

In addition to his creative impulses, Fred was intellectually gifted. His curious mind would not tolerate weak reasoning or fake news. He questioned conventional wisdom and unexamined orthodoxy. He found in me (and many others) a sojourner who understood where he was coming from. His graduate study and his research into leadership and patient care gave him a renewed appreciation for evidence-based medicine, customer service, patient care, and science in general.

However, Fred—like many of us—looked forward to his future with a mixture of skepticism and hope.

During my college years, a local conference president died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. His son was a close friend of mine. At the gravesite, standing with his mother and brother, he—a religion major—turned to her and said: “Well mother: at least we will see him again in the resurrection.” She quietly stared at the grave for a few moments. She then turned to him and said: “You never know.” He could not believe his ears . . . .

In conversations with Fred over the years, and most especially in recent months, he echoed this widow’s sentiment. And I agreed with him. “You never really know.” We also agreed on one more thing, which leads me to one of the great passages in Scripture: The Apostle Paul’s soaring hymn to love as the supreme gift of the Spirit to the church.

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 8-13 NIV

To me, this passage describes, in one way or another, every serious Christian’s faith journey. In Fred’s memory and honor, I want to reflect on how it could describe the sometimes difficult and always forward-looking spiritual journey Fred traveled with many of us.

Raised by devout missionary parents in China, Fred inherited their commitment to the life of faith. But, unlike most of us, it was assaulted in the most horrendous way. His first wife contracted a rare illness that did not respond to treatment. Church advisers urged Fred to conduct an “anointing” service if he wished her cured. But there were conditions. Dubious, he nevertheless followed their counsel. First: “Get rid of every record and book you possess that might displease God; second, pray for the forgiveness of every known sin. Then, a cure will come.” Imagine the desperation and agony, the fervent, unceasing prayer, the pleading, negotiations, and tears: and it did not come. To be sure, science had also failed; but to its credit, it made no promises! To be told that if you did all that was required, she would get well, leads to only one conclusion: since he failed, her death was on him. What could be more destructive of one’s trust? If God is that kind of person, God is not worthy of human devotion.

When he first shared this experience with Dolores and me on our trip through Greece, I recoiled and grieved for him. When I first arrived as pastor of the Sligo Church in Maryland, a young mother and her two boys were eating breakfast one Sunday morning. They heard a crash upstairs. Racing to the bedroom, they discovered their 38-year-old husband and father dying of a massive heart attack. After the funeral service, a prominent pastor said this to her: “Now that this has happened, you must discover what God wants to teach you through this experience.” It cut right thorough her. Later, she angrily asked me: “Am I so dumb that God had to kill my husband to teach me something?”

His offering an explanation for the inexplicable backfired. One should not try to turn the tragic into a divine blessing. Nothing like that ever helps.

Fred’s life and thinking were changed by what happened to him. If God controls everything that happens, and God loves us, how can God not be almost a monster? But, if God is not a monster, what is going on? Where is divine compassion?

As I see it, the passage from 1 Cor. 8-13 is the Apostle Paul’s attempt to deal with some of these questions. Knowledge, he claims, is not the answer, for it passes away. While children we talk, think and reason as children. When life challenges and matures us, we put childhood thinking away. We “see” ultimate reality dimly. What life means and what we believe the future may hold is not certain.

You never know . . .

Paul nevertheless insists that faith is connected to hope and love in an unbreakable chain. If our faith weakens, as it sometimes must, our loving and being loved in the present keeps us strong in the Spirit. Moreover, the path to the future is paved with hope which never really leaves us completely. We never stop wondering: Is death a period? Or an ellipsis . . . signifying there is more to come?

In Paul, “you never know” means, hope never abandons us.

I once joked to Fred that as surprised as I may be in the resurrection, he may be the most surprised person in the universe. He laughed and said, “I’m counting on it.” That response moved me for it means that even if we cannot know, we can hope and know love again.

In her book Called to Live in Hope, Madeleine L’Engle argues:

“How do we learn to bless, rather than damn, those with whom we disagree, those whom we fear, those who are different? All of Creation groans in travail. All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the little lost ones. . . . To look for hell, not heaven, is a kind of blasphemy, for we are called to live in hope.”

And, I would remind us, Paul adds, “in love.”

In the March 26 edition of The New York Times, Fred’s favorite paper, an opinion piece caught my eye: “After Great Pain, Where Is God?” by Peter Wehner. I quote:

“Jesus himself, crucified and near death, gave voice to the question many people overwhelmed by pain ask: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’ question, like ours, was not answered in the moment. Even he was forced to confront doubt. . . . I have seen enough of life to know that grief will leave its mark. But I have also seen enough of life to know that so, too, will love.”

We should never forget that Fred’s love for us, and our love for him and each other, leaves a mark that cannot fade.   

May that love comfort us all. Grief has indeed left its mark. But so too has hope . . . and love.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.


James Londis is a retired evangelist, pastor, professor, college president, and Ethics and Corporate Integrity officer.


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