When the Fort Borst Park Christmas lights turn on this weekend for the first time in 2022, many folks will deserve thanks.
The first guy in line to do the thanking is also the first guy in line to do the work.
In fact, he kicked off the Fort Borst drive-through Christmas light project with his own ornaments 11 years ago. He’s kept it going ever since, bringing in volunteers and leading them with his big smile, quiet advice and hearty handshake. This year, he’s been out at the park nearly every day since before Thanksgiving, setting up through rain, snow, sun and ice.
I’m talking about Lee Coumbs, who turns 80 years old this week and is still working hard to help others make our community better while having a lot of fun along the way.
Lee is one of my favorite Lewis County residents and someone who I’ve long wanted to be like when I grow up.
I mean that literally. I’ve known Lee since I was in middle school. I went to church with him and his first wife, Marty, at First Presbyterian Church.
Every August Lee would run the “Presbyterian Snack Shack,” a concession stand along the Midway at the Southwest Washington Fair. I was privileged to volunteer at the snack shack for several summers. Lee was always a delight, more a playful collaborator and patient teacher than a boss. He showed me the ropes, talked about life, and would fix us his trademark Lee Dog (I pronounced it “le dog,” like it was French) for lunch.
Lee is well-known around the Twin Cities, both because of his long history of volunteer work and because of his wide-ranging work experience. He was a high school and community college teacher. He ran the Southwest Washington Fair. He managed a car lot. He founded the Spring Youth Fair 40 years ago. He owned and operated his own sausage restaurant.
(I commented once on how impressed I was at all the different kinds of work he’s done in his life. He laughed it off, joking, “I just can’t keep a job.”)
Lee’s been a devoted public servant, with long stints on the Centralia City Council and service as the city’s first mayor under the council-manager form of government. He was a commissioner for Riverside Fire Authority. He ran for county auditor with a memorable piece of campaign swag: a comb with “vote Coumbs” campaign slogan written on it.
He once said his goal on the city council was to encourage our community’s “Do Dreamers.” He defined “Do Dreamers” as people with a vision and passion for getting things done, and the ability to gather people and financial resources to accomplish those dreams.
“We are fortunate to have many ‘Do Dreamers’ in our community,” Coumbs said. “Every volunteer group, every organization and every successful business has a ‘Do Dreamer.’”
Lee would never say it about himself, of course, but he is one of the biggest Do Dreamers of them all.
He had a wonderful partner for 52 years of that life. After Marty passed away he found another remarkable collaborator, and in 2016 he married Bonnie Canaday. She’s another Energizer Bunny of a “Do Dreamer” and a longtime community servant-leader.
I got to know both of them well during Centralia’s bicentennial observance of founder George Washington. When we talked about the wild dream of making a statue of George and co-founder Mary Jane, Bonnie immediately decided the project would doubtlessly come to pass. She wouldn’t let me doubt. She and Lee made the first $5,000 donation to the project and helped our group accomplish the goal.
When we had our bicentennial celebration in the park, Lee organized the day and fed everyone hog dogs from his own personal food cart, then he and Bonnie played water balloons with us.
Lee and Bonnie have done so much good for our community, and you get the feeling that the joy of service is all the reward they need.
Well, there might be one other thing — they’d like more people to join them in their volunteer work.
Fortunately, they are there to guide the next generation of “Do Dreamers” to inspire, lead and accomplish.
For Christmas, give yourself the gift of doing, dreaming, learning and serving. Like those cheerfully bright seasonal displays in in Fort Borst Park, choose to be a light in the darkness.
Don’t know where to start? Look for Mr. and Mrs. Coumbs — I mean Claus — to teach you. Work alongside them. You’ll have a ball as they show how generosity is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Thanks, Lee and Bonnie, for leading the way in service at Christmas and all through the years.
Brian Mittge (firstname.lastname@example.org) and his kids enjoyed serving ice cream at Centralia’s Summerfest (another Lee Coumbs-led project) not too long ago. Thanks for the invitation, Lee!
Birthday Party for Lee Coumbs
The community is invited to help celebrate Lee Coumbs’ 80th birthday party this Friday, Dec. 9, in kitchen 1 at Fort Borst Park, from 4-8 p.m.
No gifts, but bring stories.