Laughter and Tears: Remembering Lee Eshleman

“My heart is achin’, for you, Mr. Lee,
My heart is achin’, for you, Mr. Lee,
He’s the handsomest sweetie
That you’ll ever see . . . “

Often, upon encountering Lee Eshleman, I would bop up to him singing lines from the Bobbettes’ 1957 musical ditty, “Mr. Lee.”

For a long time, he didn’t believe this song existed. So, I finally dubbed a copy for him. He became a believer.

At one point, Lee drew a caricature of me wearing a tie with the point inserted in a record. As I spun it around, the disc played “Louie, Louie, Oh, no . . .”

We talked often about music in those pre-electronic mail days. I saved correspondence in which we went back and forth trying to see how many music groups we could identify with a color in their name, i.e., Moody Blues, Deep Purple, Lemon Pipers, et. al.

That was the inimitable Lee Eshleman of Harrisonburg, Va., a blithe spirit who profoundly influenced my life for nearly 20 years.

Now, Lee is gone at age 43. He lost a long struggle with depression and took his life on May 17 at his home. He left us too soon, and much too fiercely. The quiet is deafening, a loss that defies words.

Lee regularly gave himself in many ways as partner with Ted Swartz as the theatrical duo, Ted and Lee. They had become household names in the Mennonite Church and far beyond as many people came to experience the special treat that their on-stage presence and presentations afforded.

I last saw Ted and Lee together on stage in December 2006 with the incomparable Ingrid DeSanctis and their retelling of the Christmas story, “DoveTale.” I must have seen the play a half dozen times since its premiere; each time, it was a fresh nativity for me.

The on- and off-stage chemistry between Ted and Lee was remarkable. Even more, their material was fresh, imaginative, often slightly askew. They pushed the envelope, but never resorted to denigrating people or employing off-color humor. They had uncanny ability to make biblical characters seem so human, vulnerable and believable in full-length productions like “Fish-Eyes,”