The believers. I like to think we all have one somewhere in our history. I hope so. It’s the kind of person who, despite our lacking, believes in us, trusts us, gives us a chance. The kind of person who thinks we can do it even when we’re not so sure. The kind of person who’s hard to lose.
I’ve been more than fortunate to have had a few of these in my blessed life, but today there is one less. Losing him has set my focus on the importance of the believers.
There is no shortage of kind words about Lee Kinard, no shortage of fond memories either. His presence on North Carolina television screens and in thousands of personal appearances made a difference in more lives than we can count. Mine included. People loved him for his down-home ways and they proved it by making his show on WFMY-TV one of the top rated local morning TV programs in the country. It shouldn’t be a surprise. He pioneered this kind of now-common morning show, giving viewers something that hadn’t been done anywhere else before. But people in central North Carolina also loved him because he used his platform to help them and their communities for more than four decades.
For a small portion of that time, nearly seven years, I had the good fortune of sitting by Lee’s side when the melody of The Good Morning Show theme song signaled another start of two-and-a-half hours of walking the high wire as co-hosts on live TV. When he hired me to be his side-kick, I was wet behind the ears, in my mid-twenties. He was thirty years my senior, a man with far more experience on camera and in life. During my early weeks, I felt unsure of my place, intimidated at his side, but soon I began to relax (a little) as he became my mentor. Eventually he became a friend and a father figure, someone I deeply respected and loved like a Canadian daughter loves her adopted, southern-accented, dry humored, bigger-than-life-father.
When I recently heard the news of Lee passing, long after our time working together, it nearly knocked me off my feet. Literally. It was like the world wobbled beneath me and I could not stand. It seemed impossible that this eternal man could be gone. I hadn’t seen him in a long while and I wondered if that was what made me the saddest: One more time together missed. But while a lunch date left undone fills me with regret, that’s not the biggest reason I’ve been so very sad to lose him. It’s because of the way he influenced and shaped me, his thumbprint left indelibly on me.
At first it came from watching this master do what he did so well: TV. I noticed the way he looked into a camera and saw not the machine before him, but the person beyond it who was good enough to invite us into his or her family room. I watched and learned how to handle one live interview after another, in rapid fire succession, and how to keep on going with a smile even when things went terribly wrong. How to fill time. How to shave it. How to pace and figure things out on the fly and make guests feel at ease. And more. So much more.
But the greatest gift Lee Kinard gave me had nothing to do with TV. It was that he believed in me. There I was, this twenty-something “kid” half his age and yet, from the first day, he allowed his show to become our show. He listened to my ideas. He told me what I did right (and sometimes wrong). And every single time I took an idea to him for his okay, his answer was always the same:
Me: “Lee, I’d like to go the Canadian tundra and do stories about polar bears and baby belugas.”
Lee: “Make it happen, kid.”
Me: “Lee, I’d like to go to Chicago to interview Oprah Winfrey.”
Lee: “If you can get ‘er, make it happen kid.”
Me: “Lee, can I go to Bermuda… and south-central Los Angeles… and New York.. and Vancouver… and… ”
Lee: Make it happen. Make it happen. Make it happen.
And because he believed in me, he left me alone and trusted me to do just that. No micro-managing. No back-seat driving, even though my success or failure would affect his show. Back then, I appreciated him setting me loose, but now I see it as more than just creative freedom and a long rope, rare gifts though they were. I look back and see that it’s an extraordinary thing for someone to believe in you fully and trust you with something of greatest importance to them. When they do, it ignites a fire in you: a greater belief in yourself, a pilot light that stays on. And I think that’s why this loss is hard. When someone ignites something in us, they become a part of us. He became a part of me. And that makes farewell a very difficult thing.
Today, Lee Kinard has me thinking about lighting fires of belief in others. I think he, and maybe the ones who believed in you, too, would like us to pass along the fires they ignited. That is their eternal legacy. And it is ours, if we are willing to carry the torch and extend it to another… and become believers, too.
Thank you to the believers. Thank you, dear Lee. For everything, from every one of us whose life you touched. Your fire burns strong and we love you all the more for it.