Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 24, 2004
Eartis Lee is no stranger to hard work. In fact, working comes as second nature to the McKenzie native.
From the time he was a child until he was a young man, Lee worked his fingers to the bone in his father’s fields and later left the small town to serve his country in war. All the time, he put forth the effort it took to excel and find success.
For the past eight years, Lee has served as McKenzie School’s head baseball coach and a social studies teacher. Whether it’s on the baseball diamond or in the classroom, Lee has strived to pass the work ethic his father instilled in him to his players and students in hopes of making a difference in their lives.
Lee, 56, was born and raised in McKenzie.
As a small child, Lee began working in his father’s tobacco patch and cotton fields, which was a means for his family to make a living.
&uot;Most of the time I worked in the fields,&uot; Lee said. &uot;I was a farmer’s child, so I had a lot of chores. I worked in the tobacco patch and in the cotton fields. I played ball as much as I could.&uot;
Lee described his father, Greeley, as a hard-working man, who expected no less from his son or field hands. He said his father instilled a strong work ethic into him, which he has relied on throughout his life.
&uot;He worked very hard,&uot; Lee said. &uot;He believed in working, being punctual, being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be. That’s where a lot of my work ethic came from.&uot;
Lee’s father also made a living raising cattle to sell to the market.
Although working in the fields was hard, back-breaking work in the heat, Lee said he enjoyed it.
&uot;Of course, you always think you’ll be glad when you get out of the fields,&uot; Lee said. &uot;Looking back, I kind of wish I was back.&uot;
Lee also said an occasional prank helped lighten the workload.
&uot;Occasionally someone would catch a snake and put it in the tobacco wagon,&uot; Lee said. &uot;Then when they took it to the barn, where the women worked, naturally we would have a little bit of excitement.&uot;
Not only did Lee learn a strong work ethic while on the family farm, but he also gained relationships and organizational skills. He began realizing this as a young man.
&uot;It taught me how to get along with others,&uot; Lee said. &uot;There were always a lot of field hands. As I got older, I was put in charge of the field hands, so I learned a little bit about organization. I gained the desire to work with people.&uot;
When Lee turned 13-years-old, he began playing organized Little League Baseball in McKenzie. He played shortstop, third base and outfield for the youth league. The hard work he had learned from his father also helped him to succeed on the baseball diamond.
&uot;I could make contact and steal bases,&uot; Lee said.
Unlike today, Lee’s youth teams did not travel to play other community teams and did not hold All-Stars.
&uot;We had two or three teams and we played each other,&uot; he said.
Lee continued to play youth ball until he was &uot;too old to play.&uot;
&uot;I enjoyed baseball, it was fun,&uot; Lee said. &uot;I would rather play baseball than eat when I was hungry. Every opportunity I got to play, I played.&uot;
Lee attended McKenzie School, which housed students in kindergarten through the twelfth grade, and still does today. He said like today, the school was small.
&uot;We had a small school, few students in a rural setting,&uot; Lee said. &uot;Looking back I enjoyed it. It was fun. At that time, like every other student, I thought the easiest thing to do was to get out of school and find a job.&uot;
During his sophomore year, Lee played football, basketball and baseball. But his high school playing days were short lived.
Lee attended spring and summer football practices, but only played in two games before he was forced to drop off the team.
&uot;It was a situation where a farm boy didn’t have transportation back-and-forth,&uot; Lee said. &uot;If you didn’t ride the bus home, you didn’t have a way home unless you could catch a ride. My mother worked in Greenville then, at the old glove factory, and she had the car. It was difficult trying to play sports and get home. Children have it made these days.&uot;
Lee later played basketball and baseball, but only for one season. Lee said he would have continued to play baseball, but the program was discontinued.
Following his graduation in 1966, Lee enrolled at Jefferson Davis Junior College before taking a semester off after a year and a half. The semester break proved to last over two years.
While attending college, Lee began playing Class C Semi-Professional for the Town of Shreve’s team, which is a community just outside of McKenzie. He later played for McKenzie and Georgiana’s Class C teams after the Shreve’s team dropped out of the league.
&uot;It was baseball,&uot; Lee said. &uot;Baseball’s always fun. There was no money involved, just the fun of playing.&uot;
Luverne and Highland Home also had Class C teams.
While playing for Georgiana’s team, Lee had the opportunity to play against left-handed pitcher Billy Beverly, who went on to sign a Major League Baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
&uot;He could throw the ball,&uot; Lee said.
While taking a semester break from college in 1968 to work, Lee was drafted into the United States Army.
&uot;I was scared, nervous and had never been away from home other than going to school and back,&uot; Lee said.
It took less than three weeks for Lee to receive the certified draft notice from the U.S. Government after he left college. He said it was a shock to be chosen, but he felt it was his duty.
&uot;As long as you were in college, you got deferment,&uot; Lee said. &uot;Immediately, I didn’t think it would happen so quick. Within a few weeks, I had a draft notice. I think everybody owes their country a little bit of service.&uot;
Lee left in July for boot camp in Fort Benning, Ga. He attended basic training for eight weeks before being transferred to Fort McClellan in Anniston for Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) for eight weeks following graduation. During AIT, he received schooling as an 11C40, which is military occupation specialty code for a mortar infantry soldier.
&uot;Football is nothing compared to basic training,&uot; Lee said. &uot;You run a mile before you eat breakfast. They were rough on us.&uot;
Thinking back to how he was treated in boot camp, Lee now knows that the drill sergeants were just trying to help the soldiers and keep them safe.
&uot;They were really concerned about us because they knew what we were about to face,&uot; Lee said. &uot;When you went to basic back then, they were preparing for Vietnam. The drill sergeants probably felt like if one of us didn’t make it back, it may be their fault. They were tough, they had to be.&uot;
Lee said the values his father instilled in him as a youth helped him tremendously while he was in training. He said the punctuality and respect he learned came in handy.
&uot;They got us up before daylight and you better not be late,&uot; Lee said. &uot;You better have everything in order.&uot;
Following AIT, Lee received a 30-day leave. During that time, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ann, who attended elementary school with him at McKenzie.
Following his leave, Lee was immediately deployed to Cuchi, South Vietnam, where he was stationed from Dec. 1968 until Dec. 1969.
&uot;It was hot, hot, hot,&uot; Lee said. &uot;It was hot and dry for six months and it’s wet for six months during the monsoon season.&uot;
To get to Vietnam, Lee and the other troops flew out of San Francisco. On the way, they stopped in Fairbanks, Alaska, Japan, the Philippians and Guam.
&uot;I wasn’t afraid until we got close to the borders in Vietnam and they turned the lights out and we flew with no lights, afraid we might get shot down,&uot; Lee said. &uot;You stay scared.&uot;
While in Vietnam, Lee ran into a few people from his home state, which helped him feel closer to home.
Fortunately for Lee, his unit was never ambushed.
&uot;My convoy underwent sniper fire a couple times,&uot; Lee said. &uot;It was never really close to me.&uot;
Lee stayed in touch with his wife and family via letters, which he mailed off once a week. He would also receive care packages from his wife of his favorite candy bars, Butterfingers.
&uot;I was always happy to get a letter,&uot; Lee said. &uot;You always meet those people that don’t get letters from home. You let them read your mail if it’s nothing real, real personal and you share with them.&uot;
Lee remembers one fellow soldier quite well, Staff Sgt. James White. The Birmingham native was head of his platoon while he was serving in the 2nd Battalion 25th Infantry Division, Delta Company.
&uot;He asked me what was going on back home and told me he was going to take care of me,&uot; Lee said.
Delta Company was sent to the battlegrounds after the Vietcong wiped out a U.S. company. Sgt. White gave Lee different orders, which kept him at the company’s headquarters.
&uot;I believe the good Lord was behind a lot of it,&uot; Lee said.
Following his tour in Vietnam, Lee was sent to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs for three months to complete his two years of service.
&uot;I worked to kill the time,&uot; Lee said. &uot;They were through with you when you got out of Vietnam.&uot;
Lee finished his service in the Army as a buck sergeant in 1970.
&uot;I was blessed to come back,&uot; Lee said.
Following Vietnam, Lee went back to Jefferson Davis to complete his associate’s degree in education. He opted to go to work instead of completing his bachelor’s.
Lee took a service job as a diesel engine mechanic for Tractor & Equipment Co. in Montgomery.
&uot;It was a decent job and it paid well,&uot; Lee said.
While working with the heavy equipment company, Lee would travel to south Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi on service calls.
Lee retired in 1994 with 23 years of service.
Back to School
In the early 80’s, Lee began coaching Little League teams in Georgiana for his son’s baseball team. He later coached a couple of women’s softball teams.
&uot;That’s really what inspired me to go back and get my degree,&uot; Lee said. &uot;I love coaching.&uot;
After his retirement, Lee decided to go back to college and finish up his teaching degree. In 1997, he graduated from Troy University with a bachelor’s degree in social studies.
Lee accepted a teaching and coaching position at McKenzie School in 1998.
During his first year as a Tiger coach, Lee led the junior varsity football team to an 8-0 perfect season.
&uot;I love McKenzie and have enjoyed it,&uot; Lee said. &uot;It’s a lot of hard work, but I thoroughly enjoy it.&uot;
Lee has also served as assistant football coach at McKenzie and is the baseball team’s skipper.
&uot;I hope they realize life is more than sports,&uot; Lee said. &uot;I want to instill a work ethic and honesty and integrity into my students. I want them to realize if they do their very best, don’t give up and keep pushing, they’re going to be successful.&uot;
Lee and his wife have two children, Stacey and Kyle.