Hospitality and hard work are the hallmarks of Michael Lee and his family, who have been Forest Park fixtures for the past 36 years. Lee operated the Mobil Gas Station at Des Plaines and Madison, from 1972 until his retirement on February 24. Service stations may not be known for their amenities, but Lee offered full-service for a penny extra per gallon, gave away gallons of coffee and distributed free calendars. At Christmastime, his devoted customers returned his generosity, by presenting Lee with gifts.
His station was also one of the few that still offered repair service. “I like serving the community,” Lee said. So do two of his relatives who operate a cleaners and a laundromat a stone’s throw from the station.
As for hard work, just reading about Lee’s work schedule could make a person tired. For three decades, he was at the station seven days a week, from early morning to early evening. And that was after he had eased up a bit.
When Lee first came to this country, he really worked hard. “I never saw him when we were first married,” his wife Theo reported, “When he wasn’t at the gas station, he was working as a welder.” Theo also is no stranger to hard work. She was a nurse at Hines Hospital for twenty years, before opening Anne’s Ladies Fashions, in Oak Park. After a long day at the store, Theo has no trouble whipping up multi-course Korean meals.
After all, the Lees had four daughters to feed, not to mention the friends and relatives they welcome into their home. Mike Lee has accumulated so many friends over the years; he invited 300 of his closest to his daughter Anna’s weddings. The banquet hall had to open all of its rooms to accommodate the 600 guests.
It’s easy to see why Lee is popular. He has a pleasant, humble manner and is solicitous about the welfare of others. Lee is active in his church, the Korean community and especially with his group of golf friends. “We have a monthly sit down meal with a hundred friends,” Theo said. So, who needs a wedding as an excuse to get together?
It’s difficult to believe that a man from a small village in South Korea, with a limited command of English, could carve out such a rich life in his adopted country. Lee grew up in the remote hamlet of Hansan. His father was a farmer and Lee had four sisters and a brother. Hansan is so far off the map, it’s still difficult to reach Lee’s old home by automobile.
A few years ago, Lee returned to his old house, when his family traveled to Korea to attend the World Cup. He was struck by the contrast of modern Korea to the land he had left behind. “It looked like a different country,” he said, “It went from poor to rich.”
During the 1960’s, though, there were few jobs or opportunities for advancement in Korea. After two years of college, Lee went to mechanics school. Meanwhile, his future bride was earning her nursing degree in Germany. Theo then immigrated to Canada, before making her way to Chicago.
Mutual friends “fixed-up” the couple and they were married on August 15, 1970. Lee had already been a Christian in Korea but converted to Catholicism when he got married. The Lees became very active in St. Bernardine’s and had their four daughters educated there. In fact, Fr. Grady, who had been a missionary to Korea, later officiated at their weddings.
Lee is also involved in Korean Martyrs Catholic Church in Chicago and currently serves as “altar boy” at 9:00 a.m. Mass. Now that he’s retired, Lee doesn’t have to wash the grease off his hands before heading to church.
During his early days of marriage, though, Lee’s hands were rarely clean, as he slaved away at two jobs. He finally raised a modest nest egg of $30,000 to purchase the Mobil station. To get the place up and running, Lee worked 36 hours straight. Once he was established, he relocated his family to Forest Park. They must have liked the neighborhood, because after they outgrew an apartment, they moved across the street to a two-flat.
What attracted them to the town? “It was very quiet,” Theo recalled, “And we had very nice German-American neighbors. They used to call us on Halloween, to see if our girls would be coming over.” Many of these neighbors have passed away but the Lees remain firmly in Forest Park, having converted their two-flat to a single-family home.
The basement of their home contains an astonishing sight ” it’s filled with Lee’s golf trophies. He took up the game in 1978 and it was love at first swing. At his peak, Lee’s handicap was 8 and he was winning many of the tournaments he entered. When the station was slow, he would sneak away to Columbus Park for a quick nine holes. Or, he’d pound out shots at the driving range after work. Although his handicap has crept up to 14, Lee hasn’t lost any passion for the game. “Even in sub-zero weather, my husband plays golf,” Theo said in amazement.
She also joins him on the links and they belong to group of couples, who play in monthly tournaments. However, his daughters haven’t yet taken up the game.
Providing for four children was Lee’s primary motive for working so hard. After they graduated from St.Bernardine’s, Anna, Linda, Viola and Michelle all went on to St. Ignatius College Prep. “We had three at St. Ignatius at the same time,” Lee recalled. “Then we had three in college at the same time.” These institutions of higher learning included Boston College, Loyola University and the University of Wisconsin.
Lee’s daughters have all chosen professions that involve helping others: one is a teacher; two work with disadvantaged children and the fourth is a project director for the City of Chicago. The Lees now have three grandkids to dote on, including Grace, who at 2 is already showing an interest in golf.
Grandchildren, golf and goofing off, that’s how Lee plans to spend his retirement. “We’re blessed that he still has his health,” Theo said, “And we have been blessed with so many opportunities.” Just as Forest Park has been blessed by the presence of a hardworking man who took the words “service station” to heart.