Bubba: A Tribute to my Mentor

Bubba, Marilyn and Me

My older brother Berry Lee was my hero from my earliest recollection. By the time I was 6 years old he had graduated from high school and was a student athlete at the University of Arkansas. As an All American high school football player, he received a full scholarship to play as an Arkansas Razorback. As if that alone were not enough accolades, Berry Lee was also the valedictorian of his high school graduating class. He was injured playing football during his second year in college, but continued on a full scholarship, although his playing days for the Razorbacks were over. His academic achievements continued however, and he graduated summa cum laude from college, and was then valedictorian in his graduating medical school class. Many people, including myself, thought he was too brilliant to limit himself to a private medical practice, but would surely remain in the academic field and be involved in research of some kind. However, following his internship year at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas and 2 years of active duty in the U. S. Air Force he decided to join our dad in a family medical practice in El Dorado, Arkansas.

Our mother had died from breast cancer before I was 2 years old. Our sister Marilyn was 5 and Berry Lee was 13 at the time of her death. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect in her last days, our mother told Berry Lee as our older brother he needed to make certain he watched over us and protected us when she was gone.

Berry Lee was always “Bubba” to Marilyn and me. I can’t remember a time when I called him by his given name. In today’s culture, the name Bubba has certain connotations, but he fit none of them. He never owned or drove a pick-up truck with a gun rack; never wore a baseball cap; never had a chew of tobacco in his mouth, never drank a beer or even a sip of  beverage alcohol and as far as I know, he never said a cuss word his entire life. Nevertheless, he was our Bubba.

Bubba taught me how to play every sport; from throwing a football, to shooting a basketball, to hitting a tennis ball, to throwing a bowling ball,and even to playing ping pong. He was very good in all sports, but I can remember very well the days when my skills in basketball, tennis and ping pong exceeded his, and I was able to beat him in those three sports. To me it was the equivalent of winning 3 gold medals in the Olympics!

On at least 4 occasions while Bubba was in college and medical school he wrote me 4-5 page hand-written letters in which he gave advice and encouragement which usually a father would give to a son. The advice covered a number of life issues which young men face, but the gist of each letter was I should keep myself clean and free from the wicked influences of the world and live a life pleasing to God, our family and to the memory of our mother. Marilyn said she received similar letters from him also. I have kept each one of these treasured letters.

The greatest impact Bubba had on my life was yet to come. Following my training as a general surgeon and completion of my active duty requirement in the U.S. Air Force, my wife Cathy and I decided to move back to my hometown in 1971 to establish a private practice in surgery. By this time Bubba had experienced a spiritual conversion 4 years earlier and was very open and zealous in his faith. He had the discernment to see  Cathy and I were religious but did not have a personal relationship with Christ. We tried our best to avoid any discussions about religion with him. At his urging, we attended a Christian conference in Dallas in 1977, and while there both Cathy and I received Christ as our personal Savior. Everything changed for us. As we grew in our faith our love for each other increased, our marriage improved greatly, and I started assuming my God-given role as spiritual leader in our home.

Bubba began urging me to apply the principals of faith in my surgical practice. I knew  he prayed with all of his patients and had led many to a personal faith in Christ, but I never considered doing those things as a part of my practice. For all the years of training and the 2 years in the Air Force I had never seen any doctor except Bubba pray with a patient. Prior to my conversion I had considered such a thing as an unnecessary intrusion of a physician into the personal life of his patient. Bubba challenged me to pray with each of my patients before operating on them by saying, “You are taking your patients into a life-threatening situation in the operating room, and this might be their last chance to hear the gospel spoken to them by anyone.” At first I was very reluctant to offer to pray with each one and my early attempts were awkward to say the least. Many of my patients had been referred by Bubba, and I later discovered he had been checking up on my faithfulness by asking them, “Did my little brother pray with you before the operation?” I didn’t know this until at a follow-up visit a particular patient told me what Bubba had asked.

From the time of my spiritual conversion until he departed this life in 2009, my relationship with Bubba was one of a spiritual father to his son. He encouraged me to memorize large portions of scripture while spending daily time in the Word. We were involved in several men’s Bible studies together, and for one period there were 2 other physicians in town who joined us. They too had spiritual conversions and were active in their witness to patients. For a short time Bubba and I taught a couple’s Sunday school class together. These were times of rapid spiritual growth for me, and it seemed he was making a conscious effort to pour as much truth into me as possible.

Years later when Cathy and I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in order to be close to our daughter Ginny and her family, my personal time with Bubba was reduced to the few times each year we would return to visit our son John Aaron and his family. We spoke often on the phone, and he continued challenging, encouraging and occasionally rebuking me regarding my spiritual life. At the end of every phone conversation we prayed for each other.

Bubba departed this life at age 81, after spending the last 10 years of his life as care giver for his beloved wife LaNell. She had developed progressive dementia, and Bubba retired early from his medical practice in order to provide for her. He finished his journey well by setting this example of unconditional love while modeling marital faithfulness for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

Bubba was not perfect by any means, and by his own admission had “lots of faults.” He never disappointed me in his role as older brother, and even though I always thought he was too rigid and meticulous in the way he approached most problems, he remained my hero because of his wonderful character. The spiritual impact he had on me, Cathy and our children was immense and will continue on for generations.

It would be a huge understatement to say I miss him, but I know very soon at the feet of our Savior I’ll see him again. Following several million years of worship and praise of the Lord Jesus, I will be very glad to report to our mother Bubba did a mighty fine job of watching over Marilyn and me!

Dr. John

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4 thoughts on “Bubba: A Tribute to my Mentor

    • I love recalling and writing all these accounts from the past. Mom, John A., Ginny and you have heard me tell many of them for a long time. Thanks for your encouragement to keep going and your help with editing.

  1. Uncle John, I have LOVED reading every one of your stories. I’ve smiled, laughed, and even cried while reading them. They are all wonderful! This tribute to Dad is so special! I miss him so much and I’m also looking forward to the day of worshiping the Lord together with him forever. Thanks for writing, it’s blessing my life! Much love, Rachel

    • Thank you Rachel. Every time I read over the article and remember other things about him that I didn’t record, I shed a few tears also. Thank you for your encouragement to write all of these. You, David and your kids are sure a blessing to Cathy and me and we love you greatly.

      Uncle John

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