Photo by Cris Vilela.
Some people pass and are celebrated widely, but quickly forgotten. Others leave this life without even a formal obituary, but are easily remembered.
Sadly, it seems the latter is the case for Eric Lee, a former mayoral candidate and locally-famed ‘Elevator Guy’ from his days running the elevator at S&R, who passed away on Monday, Mar. 4, 2019.
Just three weeks ago, the flag at the former S&R building at the corner of Princess and Ontario Streets was lowered to half-mast to mark the passing of Eric Lee.
Then, last week, in a motion of condolence before City Council, Mayor Bryan Paterson said “That the sincere condolences of Kingston City Council be extended to the family and friends of Eric Lee, who passed away earlier this month. Eric was a mayoral candidate in last fall’s municipal election, and is remembered fondly as ‘the Elevator Guy’ who worked at the former S&R department store for many years. Eric’s friendly demeanour and warm smile will be greatly missed by many in our community.”
But that is all that’s happened thus far to honour Kingston’s favourite ‘Elevator Guy.’
If you show a picture of Lee to any Kingstonian, chances are that person will recognize him. Although Lee only lived in Kingston since the late 1980s, his unique dapper and well-put-together outfits with his equally as unique classical coif made him instantly recognizable to many in Kingston, particularly those who live, work or frequent the downtown core. For many years, it was common to see Lee, dressed to impress, walking along the streets of downtown Kingston, or at his post as the elevator operator at S&R Department Store. It was that job that made Lee win over the hearts of many a tourist and local, resulting even in the creation of a Facebook group for his fans entitled ‘The Elevator Guy of S&R Fans,’ which was created in 2008.
Born in Toronto on December 15, 1949, Lee grew up in Santa Monica, California (where he was on the UCLA swim team), before moving back to Toronto, and then to Kingston. Once here, and after a brief stint working in construction, Lee began his beloved job at S&R. ‘Beloved’ is a fair word to use, as Lee was very open about how much he loved his days working in the downtown department store. For those that ran S&R, they loved having him there, explained Michael Robinson, former co-owner of S&R.
“People say things when people pass away like ‘Oh, he was a great guy, and he was such a nice person.’ Well, in the case of Eric, those words are exactly true,” Robinson expressed, noting that the last time he spoke to Lee was following the most recent municipal election, when he called Lee to congratulate him on running a good campaign. It was only when Lee decided to run for Mayor that he finally got a phone and people were able to contact him, Robinson said.
“He was a great guy, a smart guy, fun to talk to and to listen to, and a really nice person. I liked him. And he was a Kingston icon.”
Similarly, Stuart Pete, former operations manager at S&R, had warm remarks when it came to his memory of working with and knowing Lee.
“I really can’t think of anyone he didn’t get along with,” Pete said, noting that Lee was a conscientious, dependable employee, and the kind of person anyone working in the retail industry would be happy to have on their team.
“The kids liked him, and he was interested in all the customers. He was a pretty good source of information for them. He knew quite a bit about the local surroundings of town and could be a little bit of an information centre,” Pete said. “And great with tourists, too. I would get comments about how accommodating he was with information and answering questions… And that was pretty much Eric.”
Both Robinson and Pete expressed that Lee was guarded about his past and rarely spoke about his personal life, instead focusing conversation on his favourite topics: politics and sports. Even on the two-hour car trips they shared when Robinson would take Lee to Toronto to see the New York Yankees – his favourite team – play, Lee was hesitant to speak about himself much beyond his passion for swimming, Robinson explained. Both of the former S&R employees underlined Lee’s love for Chinese buffets, and how awed they were with just how much he could pack away on their lunch dates.
“There is no way the restaurants made any money on the days Eric came in,” Robinson recalled with a laugh.
But there may have been a sad reason behind Lee’s desire to fill up and get his penny’s worth.
Lee’s long-time friend, and one-time social service support worker, Michele Zigman, echoed Robinson and Pete’s sentiments that Lee didn’t like to talk about himself or his past. Zigman met Lee almost 20 years ago, she said, and, like Robinson and Pete, she said that the passing of Lee’s father had a major impact on Lee. But having worked with Lee in the capacity of a social services worker, Zigman was able to shed some light on just how intensely his father’s passing affected Lee.
“He spent I think almost 10 years looking after his father. He maybe worked a little bit, but mostly he was the primary caregiver for his ailing father,” Zigman said, adding that, after his father passed, Lee continued living in the home his father owned until the estate was settled – Zigman said she believes Lee had brothers, but she wasn’t certain – at which point the home he’d shared with his father was sold.
“Then he lived on his savings for a while before I met him, and then, when he had nothing, that’s when I met him,” Zigman recalled.
“He was basically really in need… But, you know, he kept going out, trying to work, but nobody is going to hire you when you’ve been out of the workforce for 10 years and you’re 50, right?”
Zigman said it was then, in a “brief moment,” that she touched Lee’s life.
“I’m the one who connected him with S&R, where he ended up doing a work placement there for free and they hired him,” Zigman said.
“And, God love them, I think on the second time he did a work placement they ended up hiring him. So he spent 10 years working there.”
Over the next decade, as Lee worked at S&R, Zigman said she would bump into him occasionally, and they would always have a chat when they connected. Then, after the store closed in 2009, they met again.
“‘We had a good 10 years, anyway,’” Zigman recalled Lee saying to her that day.
“And, you know, he never gave up hope. He kept looking for that next job, and that next place to stay.”
Zigman revealed that, for a number of years, Lee must have been staying in shelters, as she knew he had no permanent address, but saw him around town. It was after Lee spent a number of years struggling to get by that, suddenly, Lee and Zigman’s paths crossed once again.
Zigman’s sister, Jane (also Zigman), is a landlord in downtown Kingston, and she also used to run the lotto centre on Princess Street beside The Screening Room. It was there that Jane – and her daughter who also worked in the store – also met Lee. And when her daughter was moving out of a single room in a rental house that Jane owned, she begged her mother to take Lee in, Zigman recounted.
“So my sister took him in, in this small room that she never really rented out. And he was there for about six years. That’s when I started to see him again more often,” Zigman said.
Lee’s passing was discovered by his landlord after he’d passed away in his single room he rented from Jane. Inside that small room, which he rented for a nominal fee for the past six to eight years, Lee led the life few knew about – a life where all of his worldly possessions were within arm’s reach in his rented room… if he had a room at all. Sadly, Zigman expressed, the helpful, talkative man so many in Kingston stopped to chat with lived much of his late life in poverty.
“It just goes to show that you don’t always know that much about the people you know, or their stories. With Eric, you’d never know! He always dressed in his suit and looked clean and always upbeat… Nobody would know that… And that’s the sad thing, you know, you really don’t always know how other people live…” Zigman said.
“He had nothing and no one… And then what happens? Will anyone claim him?”
Both Robinson and Pete expressed the same concern: What will happen to Lee now?
“I tried to find out what’s going on, like will there be a burial or a funeral or a service? I don’t think he has any family,” said Robinson, noting just how many people had contacted him after finding out about Eric’s passing.
“I don’t know what’s going to become of him now, frankly, I mean, I don’t know who there is to send him off,” agreed Pete.
Since speaking with Robinson and Pete, they’ve both been in contact with other former S&R workers, and are planning a private celebration of Eric’s life. And while both said they would be happy to contribute to any sort of fund to ensure Lee’s end-of-life services are seen to, no one has stepped up to create such a fund. And despite tireless calls, emails, and research, at point of publication, Kingstonist has not been able to confirm any details with the coroner’s office, Kingston Police, or local social services.
Describing Lee as “a sweetheart” and “a gentleman,” Zigman said it is for precisely that reason she reached out to share Lee’s story.
“I think that he needs something, and I think if the story gets out there, something will happen at least – we can remember him well, and not see him go without any acknowledgement,” she said.