CHAPEL HILL: Lee Alexander Thomas, 61 – brilliant, handsome, very funny and very wise, deeply spiritual chorister, child of God, and disciple of Jesus – died a peaceful and holy death on Tuesday, August 25 at Duke Hospital in Durham, NC. His husband and his priest were by his side. The cause was complications from acute alcoholic hepatitis following a long battle against addiction.
All who loved Lee witnessed this fight, this battle truly not against flesh and blood alone, but against principalities and powers of deep darkness. However deep the darkness, Lee managed to say Morning Prayer and Compline from the Book of Common Prayer every day of his life. In his last days, he managed through newly found and emerging sobriety to express humility, gratitude, and joy for all that God had given him including his caregivers, his church, and his beloved husband, Robert Edward Wright, who together with Lee’s mother survives him.
Lee was born in 1954 to Emily and Alexander Kerr Thomas in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His parents lovingly cultivated his growth in the faith, and his memory of his childhood church, Germantown Presbyterian, featured prominently in his spiritual journey, shaping his understanding of Christian faith and life, particularly Scripture and church music. He was educated at the Pennsylvania State University, Temple University and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was a homiletics major. As a seminarian, he served for a year at First Presbyterian Church in Metuchen, N.J. After seminary, Lee worked in New York City for Institutional Investor, where he ran transcontinental educational and marketing seminars.
Upon moving to Durham in 1980, he joined the Duke Chapel Choir, where he took his place as a second bass. He moved to Chapel Hill in the summer of 1982, and on his first Sunday there he attended the Chapel of the Cross, where he was spotted in the congregation by organist-choirmaster Wylie S. (Van) Quinn, who recruited him to the choir and became a devoted and life-long friend. Lee’s experience of the love of God through liturgy and the sacramental life shaped his soul in many and varied ways, but began in earnest with his Confirmation into The Episcopal Church in the spring of 1984. His theological training and commitment was embodied not only in his choir service, but also in his parish leadership in Christian education and formation and in youth ministry.
Lee met Robert in the courtyard of the Chapel of the Cross in the summer of 1983, and they were married, by mutual intent and in the sight of God, for thirty-two years. On January 12, 2008, the parish held a celebration and blessing of their union. On the fifth anniversary of that date, their civil marriage with the renewal of vows was conducted in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, The General Theological Seminary, in New York.
His love of the church led him and Robert to stop by most Saturdays to grab a bulletin, preview the following day’s liturgy, and hear Van practice for the service. It was the ideal way to begin the weekend, and melded with Lee’s seventeen-year relationship with Hinshaw Music, a publisher whose catalogue includes much church and school music and where he served for several years as vice president. Lee’s work there built upon his professional experience in New York, and also included editorial and video production. In addition, he provided leadership in planning and directing Hinshaw’s annual Celebration, which occurred in Chapel Hill and in various locations throughout the country.
In his later years, Lee spent his time writing and doing editorial work, performing volunteer work for his neighborhood association and electoral precinct, serving as a verger for and singing in the parish choir, and keeping up with his God children Rebecca and Sebastian, for whom he prayed daily. He also presided over his lively Yellow Lab, “Rafe,” named for the archangel Raphael, “health-bringer blessed, aiding every sufferer,” in the words of the hymn. Rafe lives up to his name, and thanks to the ministrations of Lee’s care team was able to visit Lee in the hospital a few days before his death.
The poet Emily Dickinson at the death of her mother noted that “the presence of her absence is everywhere.” As Lee’s friends at church, in the recovery community, and beyond watched him struggle with the disease of addiction the presence of his absence was everywhere, and we who knew him sober longed for the return of that presence. We take solace in the gift of his sobriety at his death, knowing that the good work God began in him at his baptism will be made perfect as “he goes from strength to strength in the life of perfect service” in the presence of the God he loved and Who never let him go. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
A Solemn Eucharist with the Burial of the Dead will be held at the Chapel of the Cross, 304 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill on Friday August 28 at 11:00 a.m. Memorial contributions may be made in support of the music program at the Chapel of the Cross.