Thursday, Nov. 15 2012 5:55PM
Friendship for Navy veteran launched by holiday thanks
By Russ Pulley
Mike Ditamore noticed Donald Lee’s cap embroidered with U.S.S. Sloat.
The World War II veteran was having coffee with his wife at McDonald’s on Chipman Road. Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas two years ago, Lee had just started wearing the cap. Ditamore had an impulse to buy the Lee’s Summit couple a $20 gift card, handed it to Lee and thanked him for his military service. That might have been the end of it.
A kind gesture for the holidays.
But in one of those little twists in life, it started a new friendship visits now reaching into a third holiday season.
Ditamore, a Lee’s Summit resident and a captain for the Independence Fire Department, said he has a weekly date with his daughter Addison. He’d come home from a shift and take her for breakfast, while his wife and two step-sons slept. The Lees, longtime Lee’s Summit residents now living in John Knox Village, go to the restaurant daily for coffee.
The following week when Ditamore was ordering a meal, Donald Lee stepped in front of him to swipe his gift card and pay for the meal. Then he invited the son and daughter to sit down with him and his wife.
“It kind of turned into a second family for us,” Ditamore said. “I just thought I’d show my appreciation, and it kind grew from there.”
The next Christmas season, Ditamore gave them another gift card, saying “I bought your friendship for a year, now let me buy another year.”
Addison, 5, has grandparents and a great grandparent in this area and the Lees have their two sons and grandchildren, so none of them are bereft of extended family. But Addison has adopted them as another set of grandparents.
She shows the school work. Donald Lee, 92, taught her to spin coins on the table top. She went to their apartment to trick-or-treat on Halloween.
Addison learns nursery rhymes her Dad never heard. The couple brings Addison trinkets.
“Every day is Christmas when we go to McDonald’s because they always have something for her,” Ditamore said.
As they’ve gotten acquainted they share stories.
Ditamore said it’s a opportunity to hear from another generation.
“It’s social, but its learning things too,” he said.
Ellen Lee, 86, can share about her trip to New York to be on the “Say When” game show in 1964. She won a car and a color television (color TV then was a new thing and a big deal at the time). Or tells how she met Donald as a waitress in her parent’s restaurant in Louisburg, Kan., and accusing him of putting water in the ketchup as a prank.
“I bawled him out the first time I saw him,” Ellen Lee said. She confides that her middle name also is Lee and she’s gotten a lot of humor out of being Ellen Lee Lee.
They recall stories from Donald Lee’s tour on the Sloat, a destroyer escort hunting U-boats in the Atlantic, then sent to the Pacific toward the end of the war where it evacuated surrendering Japanese from islands among other duties. It was at Iwo Jima. Lee was a machinist on the vessel.
While sailing the North Atlantic there were very rough seas and Donald Lee would have to brace himself inside the ship as it was tossed by waves and he worked.
His wife asks him to tell about the time the ship rolled over.
“I woke up,” Donald Lee says. It was a bad dream he had on board. Now it’s their joke.
The Lee’s moved to Lee’s Summit in 1954 when it was a small town population about 2000. He was working as a machinist at the oil refinery in Sugar Creek. He served as coach for the House of Charm baseball team.
“I’ve had a good life, a good wife helps a lot,” Donald Lee said.
But, Ellen Lee said, one should ask Ditamore about being Commander of the Independence Fire Departments Honor Guard which will participate in services for fallen police, fire fighters or veterans. Or co-director of the one-week summer camp for people with special needs.
“He really does a lot of volunteer work,” she said.
Camp MOJA is held at campground at Excelsior Springs for about 150 campers each year, teenagers to adults in their 70s, Ditamore said. He said he started with that effort as a counselor in 1985, at first because he wanted to meet girl counselors, he said, but he learned it was about the campers. He’s continued volunteered there 26 years.
Ellen Lee said that she learned Ditamore volunteered for the camp from longtime friends who are parents of a son with Down syndrome, now in his middle age, who also come into the restaurant. They sometimes sit together to chat.
As the Lees and Ditamore visited this week in the restaurant booth they demurred over who should be the subject of an interview.
The answer, it seems, is the story about simple friendship that makes this community a little richer and a little brighter.