On a balmy September afternoon, a student at a prestigious Honolulu prep school pauses on her walk past the football field to stare at a goalpost draped with leis.
On a chilly September evening, a student on Cross Campus pauses to examine a flyer advertising cheap food in the Berkeley bagel bar.
Unbeknownst to them, these two students, separated by a continent, both witness the legacy of Richard Yum Choon Lee ’91. During his high school days at the Punahou School in Hawaii and years at Yale, Lee left his mark. Now those marks have become memorials.
Lee, who worked for the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald on the top floors of 1 World Trade Center, is one the hundreds of Cantor Fitzgerald employees among the 6,400 people missing in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. He was 34.
Lee lived in New York with his wife Karen Engelke Lee ’90 and their son Zachary, who will turn two this month.
His friends recall him as “a gentle giant.” At 6 feet 4 inches and 265 pounds, he was a presence on the gridiron, and that domineering stature was paired with an earnest personality, friends said.
“He was very, very intense,” said Dave Kelley, a former assistant Yale football coach who worked closely with Lee. “He had very dark eyes that used to burn through you.”
That intensity translated into activity during Lee’s undergraduate years.
He shined as a broad-shouldered defensive tackle in his sophomore and junior years.
But because of a shoulder injury in the 1988 Harvard-Yale game, Lee had to sit out his senior season.
Recalling the injury, Kelley said Lee was “crying, not because of the pain, but because he wanted to play.”
Wanting to give it one more shot, Lee stayed at Yale in the fall of 1990 after his classmates graduated to play one more season. But he was soon injured again.
Lee was an intensive political science major, with a concentration in Russian politics. He also spoke Russian.
His intelligence was apparent even to those who only knew Lee in the athletics sphere.
“I coached at Yale for over a quarter of a century,” Kelley said. “Richard would certainly be one of those kids who were up a notch from their classmates.”
His endeavors were not limited to the field and the classroom. He founded and ran the popular Berkeley bagel bar, which is still in operation. It became a social center for Lee’s crowd.
“We’d just go down there and hang out,” said Caleb Epstein ’90, a Berkeley friend of Lee’s.
He also sang and played bass in Skunkhead, a student rock band that played in fraternities, college parties and local bars.
Epstein said that among his friends, Lee was not the quiet athlete that coaches knew in the locker room.
“He was a great guy — very outgoing — gregarious, very funny,” Epstein said.
Lee shared his humor with all of Yale — he drew a cartoon strip for the Yale Herald, called “The Drunk Kids.”
Admist his flurry of activity, Lee found time to date fellow Berkeley student Karen Engelke, who he later married. Karen Engelke Lee could not be reached for comment.
While Richard Lee actively engaged in New Haven life, he felt strong ties to his roots.
“He was very proud of being from Hawaii,” Epstein said.
So proud that he invited a bunch of his friends home for spring break their senior year, showing them his favorite beaches and the best places to surf.
And Lee’s fellow Hawaiians are proud of him.
Several of Rich’s classmates did a memorial of pictures and leis on one of the football field goal posts shortly after Sept. 11, said Tom Holden, Punahou School’s director of athletics, in an e-mail. Holden also said the current Punahou football teams were told of Lee’s contributions to the school’s football program.
Those contributions included serving as captain of the Punahou School football team Lee’s senior year. That year the big game of the season fell on Halloween.
Punahou’s opponent was ranked number one in the state, and would go on to take the state championship that year. But they lost that day to Punahou, in part because of Lee’s interception and 90-yard touchdown run just before the end of the first half.
But at Punahou as at Yale, Lee’s interests extended beyond the football field.
“He didn’t have a typical football mentality,” Punahou’s head coach Mike Pavich said. “He had so much more to his life.”
Pavich said Lee was extremely smart and clever, and in at least one case, prescient.
Pavich said Lee worked at a coffee shop in high school, before the Starbucks phenomenon had put a coffee shop on every block.
“He told me ‘Gourmet coffee is the next big thing,'” Pavich said. “That’s how smart he was.”
For Lee, his varied interests and passions could be seen by a picture tured in the 1990 Yale Banner along with his Berkeley friends and his future wife.
In his comments below his picture, he thanked “everyone who knows what Skunkhead is all about” and Karen, “who reminded [him] that love is real.”