By Jonathan B. Wight
A virtue ethicist knows that no one is perfect, and that the vicissitudes of life teach us lessons. She also knows that we have exemplars who guide us along the way.
One such exemplar for me was Franklin “Lee” Ennis, who passed away a week ago at age 81.
I’ll never forget the moment I met Lee in spring of 1970. I got home from school to see a tall ladder up against the side of our house. A handsome man was at the peak of our eaves painting.
“Hey, boy,” he called down. That was how he always greeted me, with his charisma and playful grin and sparkle in his eyes -- that never left despite the pain of his last years of diabetes and complications.
As a young man Lee was a rascal, in trouble with the law, infused with alcohol and rebellion. He was a steelworker climbing high over the Potomac River to build the Wilson Bridge along I-95. He was a plumber for the Marine Corps. He climbed more tall buildings with a commercial sign company. After retirement, he worked every day as handyman and caretaker.
He grew up in Stafford County, Virginia, one of the poorest places in America. Cradling the Potomac River, it was where the Union Army camped for years during the Civil War, taking every tree, every cow, and every bushel of corn. The post-war left nothing to build upon—a ravaged land, people dispersed or dead. It took 100 years for Stafford to recover.
Lee became the unofficial “mayor” of Widewater, a teensy blip on the map of Stafford (if you can find it). This was a spot where the CSX track line once had a tiny railroad station to help load passengers and fish heading to Washington, D.C. (My grandparents ran the fishery.) Lee helped start the volunteer fire station to service this peninsula, isolated and cut off due to geography.
Later in life, Lee conquered a war with alcohol, became a devoted church member, and spent many hours helping others. At times he had a gruff exterior, tinged with comments that sounded prejudiced; this was belied by his acts of kindness, reaching out to those who needed it.
Lee made people feel safe. He was a leader who never held office. What a blessing to have had him in my life.