Columbia, SC — I SPENT A WEEK from hell in Myrtle Beach in 1988 thanks to Lee Bandy, who was vacationing nearby but still working the phones and producing salacious tips about a then-decade-old trip to Myrtle Beach by newly minted vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle.
Nobody was going to ask Lee to do anything more than that on his vacation, so even though I needed to be in Columbia to put the finishing touches on a two-month-long investigation that was running that weekend about the infectious-waste incinerator in Hampton County, I got dispatched to the Grand Strand do his leg work. It changed daily based on Lee’s latest tips and included tracking down bartenders with names like Red and Rocky and driving out into the middle of nowhere to find John Jenrette, who was supposed to have details about alleged sexual liaisons.
When I called my editor to tell him the former congressman refused to give me anything more than cryptic innuendo, he told me to go back and say, “Mr. Jenrette; that’s just not good enough.” I did, and I got the name of a woman I eventually was able to track down at her office. She refused to tell me anything more than the name of her attorney. If there was a story there, I never found it.
I forgave Lee anyway, as did countless politicians whose lives he inconvenienced far more than mine.
Since Lee died on Monday, I’ve been trying to remember the first time we met, but I can’t. Probably because I felt like I knew him long before we ever came face to face. Lee was an institution when I came to The State in 1986, but he didn’t act like one. He was friendly and welcoming and flirtatious and generous with information and knowledge.
We got to know each other through hundreds of brief phone conversations over the five years when we were in separate cities but working together on the government staff. Lee would call to check in with our editor, and I would pick up the phone when he wasn’t around. When I was briefly toying with the insane idea of moving to Washington, Lee spent the better part of a day showing me around town.
We became desk mates when he moved to Columbia in 1993. This was back when there were more reporters than computers in the newsroom (a source of recurring nightmares to this day), and we would wrestle over who got to use the one we shared, and who had to either wait or go looking elsewhere for one that wasn’t in use. Well, “wrestle” isn’t quite the right term, since Lee, the quintessential gentleman, would always let me have the computer if I asked, and if he wasn’t on deadline. Sometimes even if he was.
Lee and I were very different kinds of reporters. Lee focused on politics; I focused on policy. Lee always wanted to be the first to report news; I wanted to be the best at explaining it. Lee would have been miserable in the editorial department; I felt like I was at home from the moment I applied for the job.
Sometimes Lee drove me crazy, as I’m sure I frequently did him; usually, though, he was a wonderful and helpful friend and colleague who knew everybody who was anybody in our state, had at least one — and often far more than one — great story to tell about all of them and, no matter how many times he had written things that got them in a bind, managed to retain their respect, and often their friendship.
I was never certain about Lee’s politics, which means he met the gold standard for political reporters, but I knew something far more important about him: In the largely secular world I found myself thrown into when I became a reporter, Lee was a devout Christian. He didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, but he didn’t hide it either; he lived it.
Others in our business are using Lee’s death to make sweeping conclusions about how journalism has changed, for good or for ill, and about what we all should learn from Lee about being a professional while maintaining our humanity. Politicians are making their own points about our profession, and sometimes about their own.
The reflections his death provoke in me are so much more personal, and introspective. They’re about a dear friend I let slip out of my life. Like I have done with so very many friends over the years.
I’m terrible about keeping up with people when they move outside of my daily routine, and it was no different when Lee retired. It’s not that I don’t care about them; I just never seem to find the time to reach out to them. I get too caught up in the now to remember the then, too focused on things that must be done to think about what really matters: the people who enrich our lives.
Oh, I was always delighted to chat whenever Lee called. We had a wonderful conversation a year or so ago when I ran into him at Motor Supply after Mass. And we got to catch up in August when he was at The State for a banquet inducting him into the newspaper’s new hall of fame. But that was the extent of our interactions over the past seven years.
Every time I got a note passing along information about his latest health decline, I would say a prayer for him, feel this pang of guilt for not doing more, and then go back to whatever I was doing.
And now he’s gone. And I will miss him. And hope that I can do better by other friends.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.