"I just had to remember to take one day at a time, and sometimes one minute, even one second, at a time," says Leon "Lee" Charette, explaining how he has managed to make the long journey from a troubled family background to his successful life today.
His early growing years were difficult, but he was determined to break with his past and create a better life for himself. This determination explains a lot about Lee.
His early years were spent in Lake Placid, where he grew up in a large household of eight brothers and stepbrothers, one sister and an absentee father in the Merchant Marines.
(Photo —Caperton Tissot)
Life at home was so disruptive that he and two siblings were sent to live with a foster farm family in Keeseville.
"Actually," Lee recalls, "it was sort of fun. I love animals and we had everything there, chickens, pigs, horses and over a hundred cows, which I helped my foster father to milk."
He attended Catholic school until, after four years, he was returned to his biological family in Lake Placid. There, he enjoyed going out on his own to boat and fish in the nearby lakes.
When he was in fifth grade, the family moved to Saranac Lake. Lee continued his education, first at St. Bernard's, then Petrova and finally at the high school. But home life continued to be chaotic. The effects of living in a turbulent family were not as well understood then as now. Additionally, Lee had a learning disability, undiagnosed at that time. Professional help was not available. Like many children in similar circumstances, he was often in trouble. However, thanks to his determination and the support from several understanding coaches and teachers - John Raymond, Dwayne Fisk, Frazier Sturgeon, Tom Fish, and Fay Duffy-Clark - he turned himself around.
"I learned that I didn't want to repeat the things I had seen happening around me," he said. "I had set myself the goal to graduate, and I was definitely going to do it."
Though much older than his classmates, he eventually did graduate in 1979. He did not want to disappoint himself or those who had encouraged and believed in him along the way.
Another person of great importance to Lee was Jerry Michael. He was Lee's first employer, hiring him to work at his 175-acre Christmas tree farm in Lyon Mountain.
"He was like a father to me," Lee said, "and taught me a work ethic."
He stayed there for 10 years. It was an enjoyable working experience and included annual six-week trips to Edison, N.J., where he sold wreaths and trees from a car lot while living in the luxury of a large, well-equipped RV.
When the tree farm went out of business, Lee moved on to an assortment of other jobs, picking up skills as he went. In 1993, he took on a more permanent position at the Mirror Lake Inn, working in maintenance and as a caretaker for the home of Ed and Lisa Weibrecht, owners of the resort. "It was a dynamite place to work," Lee said. It was there he picked up his communication skills. "I learned to converse with all kinds of people, whether white, black, or yellow, speaking English or some other language."
While he loved the work, the formality did not match his happy and forthright personality, and so, in 2008, he felt it was time to move on.
"Change is good," he said.
Even though he now works as supervisor of maintenance at the Greenwood Apartments in Lake Placid, he prefers to continue as a hands-on worker.
"People should see the cheerfulness of the senior citizens and disabled residents who live there," he said. "They inspire me to keep going."
Eighteen years ago, Lee met and married Linda. They have a close family consisting of his own son, Keegan, from an earlier marriage, his stepdaughter Jessica, who is in the Marine Corps, stationed in San Diego, and their daughter Ashley.
Lee is constantly busy and enjoys it that way. He played every sport in his youth and continues to play hockey and basketball today. He also coaches girls ice hockey. In addition to regular work, he has done many other jobs, such as restoring older Adirondack camps to their original condition, doing masonry work, making and selling wreaths, and doing construction repair jobs.
"I'm always having fun," he said."You've got to enjoy what you are doing."
He, his family, their two loveable cats and two yellow labs live in a house that does not prepare you for the pleasant surprise when you step in the door. It is like entering a lovely, well-kept 1800s cabin with all hand-hewn logs and ceiling beams, beautifully chinked, cozy and warm. He and his wife did all the restoration work and never borrowed a penny to do it.
"They can take all our material things away, but as long as we have each other as a family, something I didn't have growing up, we will be OK," Lee said.
Determination has brought him far and should be an inspiration to others.
This article was based on interview with Leon Charette. Caperton Tissot can be reached at Tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.