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August 18, 2004

Remembering Laurel Lee

My favorite writing teacher from my college days, memoirist Laurel Lee, died of pancreatic cancer last week in Oregon. She was 58 years old.

Laurel was perhaps best known for her 1977 book Walking Through the Fire, which was a Christian-themed account of her simultaneous struggle with Hodgkin’s disease, a dangerous pregnancy, and the fact that her husband was leaving her for the babysitter. The book began as a hand-written journal entitled the “Laurel Lee Goes to the Hospital Book”, and eventually went on to become (with the help of a doctor, who sent it to an editor in New York) a best-seller in the U.S. It was reprinted in 52 countries and made into a CBS-TV movie in 1979. Laurel went on to write several children’s books and four more books for adults, including Tapestry: The Journey of Laurel Lee, which came out earlier this summer. Her obituary in the Oregonian can be found here.

In the classroom, I always appreciated Laurel’s willingness to push the envelope at our decidedly conservative college (she once drove in a prostitute for us to interview for a Biography/Memior class), as well as her enthusiasm for all forms of creativity (including the time I shamelessly fictionalized a profile-bio of my dull track coach to include tales of hallucinogenic drug use and public urination). Outside of the classroom, she took an interest in my travels and encouraged me to stay with her friends (including children’s author Mike Thaler, whom she later married) during my first vagabonding stint around the USA in 1994. Two summers before that, she’d let me crash in her basement for a few months in exchange for helping her son Matthew build a room onto the house (I also worked as an extra on the set of Dr. Giggles that summer with her daughter Mary). Though I eventually lost touch with Laurel, I’ve remained long-standing friends with her oldest daughter Anna (whom I briefly dated during college).

Laurel even made it into the pages of Vagabonding, where I pulled a quote about the trappings of materialism from her 1990 book Godspeed. “Cities,” she wrote wryly, “are full of those who have been caught in monthly payments for avocado green furniture sets.”

My condolences and thanks go out to Anna, Matthew, Mary, Mike and the various grandkids. I’ll remember Laurel well.

Posted by | Comments (17) 
Category: Rolf's News and Updates


17 Responses to “Remembering Laurel Lee”

  1. Deborah Dombrowski Says:

    Thanks for your great tribute to Laurel. One day, ten months ago, I received a call – it was from Laurel Lee. She had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given three months to live. She asked if we would publish her manuscript.

    We agreed to do that, and we rushed to get the book in print. Laurel waited to see it – nine months later. She passed away a few weeks after it was released.

    In getting to know Laurel this past year, I came to realize she was as incredible in real life as she was in her writing. She will be greatly missed.

    The good news is she really knew where she was going. When asked recently by Oregonian writer, Jeff Baker, how it felt, knowing she was dying she replied, “I’ve been to 50 countries, but I’ve never been to heaven. I know it exists.”

    You can view quite a bit of info about Laurel on the publisher web site at http://www.lighthousetrails.com. And her new book, filled with over 60 photos, is definitely worth reading. She changed my life, that’s for sure.

  2. Jennifer Loucks Says:

    I discovered Laurel’s writing just this past May. I devoured all of her books (even the children’s books) and shared them with my sister who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. Laurel’s books have touched both our lives in many ways. I wish I could have had the honor of being one of her students or at least attend one of her seminars. But I am looking forward to meeting her in the best place of all: heaven. She was a courageous and fascinating woman. I wish her family and friends all the comfort and blessings that heaven can provide.

  3. Debi Zaida Says:

    I am saddened to find out about my friend, Laurel, through this website. Laurel was my friend for many years. When I was in the Czech Republic and having a very difficult time, she was there to encourage me and “lift” me out of my trials on her wave of humor and friendship. I was so happy to see her new life with her husband, Mike, who was such a blessing to her. She always made me laugh with her spin on the trials that we went through. I lost touch with her when I remarried and moved here to Arizona. She had a full and extremely colorful life, always going on crazy adventures! Knowing she is now with Jesus makes my heart glad and I am looking so forward to seeing her soon. Mike, Anna, Matthew, and Mary, I am so sorry for your loss.
    I love you, Laurel! I’ll see you soon and join you with Jesus, for the biggest and grandest neverending adventure of our true eternal life!

  4. Susan Cash Says:

    I first read Laurel’s Walking Through The Fire when it came out in the seventies. I was amazed by the strength of her character and her belief in Christ. Many others would have succumbed to their weaknesses at a time like that but she remained faithful to all she believed in. Her children were very blessed. Although I am now in my fifties,I have never forgotten Laurel or the story of her life. Heaven is a little happier now that Laurel is there.
    God Bless her family in their loss. Susan Cash

  5. MaryEllen Says:

    Hi. I want to thank you for this article in your blog. I read the preview excerpt of Walking Through the Fire that Diane Davis mentioned was published in Woman’s Day or Family Circle.
    I was inspired by it and have always remembered it. Every so often, something makes me think of her story and I wonder how the rest of her life went. (I never got the whole book or looked to see if she wrote anything else)
    Finally, today, I looked her up and found your post. I,too, am so sorry that she’s gone. At the same time, however, I’m so delighted that she survived the initial bout with Hodgkins and went on to live many happy, productive years and find great happiness.
    So, thank you, Rolf, for providing this first person account of what it was like to be Laurel’s student, and thanks to all the people who left comments adding additional dimension to your memories. May she rest in peace eternally.

  6. Ellen Says:

    I was diagnosed with cancer at age 38. At the time I had a nine-year-old son with autism, and my terror at the prospect of leaving this earth centered around who would care for him, who would understand his needs, etc. Someone gave me a copy of Laurel’s book, Walking Through The Fire, and I literally clung to her words throughout treatment, taking the book into the hospital with me and memorizing certain passages for comfort. It helped me get through.
    Somehow I think that this could be the highest compliment that could be paid to a writer.

  7. Bryan Liberty Says:

    Thinking of Laurel tonight. Never met her but I feel her, like I feel the letters under my fingers. She had magic and she gave us a show. We will forever be applauding. Thank you Laurel for letting us believe.

  8. Natalie Collins Says:

    I purchased “Walking Through The Fire” just after it was published in the late 70′s. One does not read a Laurel Lee book without feeling she is a good friend…a kindred spirit. I am just now finding out Laurel went on to live a tremendously productive and full life. I’m so glad she found happiness with Mike Thaler (who has to be one of the most gentle spirits on this earth!)…I would really enjoy hearing about their “love story”, as I’m sure all of Laurel’s readers would! She SO deserved happiness with someone who would appreciate her and adore her and love her. I know her children realize what an exceptional Mother they experienced…and they will be with her again in Heaven some sweet day.

    “Walking Through The Fire” has been a part of my own personal library for well over 30 years and I reread it from time to time. I’m glad I was able, after this reading, to “Google” her name and find out what happened to this incredible woman. But, I must admit, upon finding out she’s gone from us, my heart is heavy and sad. However, my spirit is soaring way up high, ever so near the clouds…and I’m thinking how beautiful Heaven must be. I’ll mourn for a while, but joy will come in the morning because I know Laurel is having a grand time with our Lord!!

  9. Luci Flynn Says:

    I found “Walking Through The Fire” in a stack of books I was going through. i don’t know where it came from and I don’t think I ever read it. I am a breast cancer survivor and I could relate to her radiation stories. mine was in 2008 so of course, they have made the experience somewhat easier, but I could still relate and I liked that someone told my story.

    I decided to google Laurel Lee and see if she survived that experience. I am glad to read that she did and that she had a good life. I am sorry that she is gone but she is not forgotten.

  10. Valerie Dison Says:

    A friend of mine has just been diagnosed with a non-hodgens lymphoma, and with reading about the disease it reminded me of Laurel Lee. I remember watching the movie Walking through the fire and I remember being so touched by this movie that I sobbed through the whole thing. Bess Armstrong played Laurel Lee. The movie was unforgettable, just like Laurel Lee. It made me google her and found out that she had passed away. Her children were so lucky to have had her as their mom. My mother just passed away a month ago. She was 84 and was very much loved.

  11. Jewel Turinsky Says:

    Laura Lee was my teacher when I was only 17. She told me if I wanted to write, I had to live an interesting life. She ruined me for the ordinary with those words. Her classes on biography/autobiography and writing for children were revolutionary. She told me to find her when I had written my first novel. I guess I am a few years late. I learnt of her death only today and am therefore in shock. I sit alone in my home in New Zealand remembering. Oh the adventures I have had Ms. Lee… I wanted so much to share them with you. Someday, I will. Thank you everyone who posted here. It helped me to hear the words of others whose lives she changed.

  12. Jewel Turinsky Says:

    Ha.. Darn spell check. Yeah, I know her name is Laurel.

  13. Valerie Alpha Says:

    Laurel greatly affected my life in 1977-1978 when I was pregnant and then a new mom. We lived in the city and did not have much money. Although I had not been raised to think much of money except as a way to support a lifestyle, I always felt embarrassed about being a have-not and really liking my thrifted, inherited and home made things. Laurel’s book helped me see that I was on the right path in spirituality too. Friends gifted me with a hardcover double book of hers as my softcover was so beat up from reading and I loaned it-it got lost in the universe-I am sure for a reason. I am going to read all of her books. I am sorry for her passing but it does seem that she contributed much to others and the planet and I’m sure she’s in a great place and still teaching. ; )

  14. Tanya Says:

    The first time I heard the name Laurel Lee was this morning when I found a copy of Walking Through The Fire abandoned on a seat on the train. After reading quite a bit I decided to look her up. I’m sad that she has passed but she seems to have been a woman with amazing strength and lead a full life. I think this book found its way to me because I have a close friend who has cancer and is in serious need of inspiration.

  15. Charlene Andrew Says:

    I met Laurel Lee about 25 to 30 years ago when she lived at our home for a few days in Phoenix, Durban, South Africa. As a little girl, she impacted me with her enthusiasm and the fact that she was so interested in little inconsequential me. I thought about her today when I found out about a friend who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was saddened to learn of her death but know that she is in a better place. I will never forget her.

  16. Kate Burk Says:

    Today I picked up and read Laurel Lee’s Journal for the first time. I was blown away by her humor when in the midst of such health trials. I was booing her first husband for leaving her…for the children growing up, for her doctor friend, ‘Martin’ had me getting excited and was wowed by his ‘bedside’ manner…was dismayed with he dumped her.
    Then curiosity arose when I saw that she was beating the cancer, which he wouldn’t stick around for. Then wondered if she had a relapse. This evening I learned here that she did survive ALL that, to see that she did .. Praise the Lord! AND for her finally getting a good man in her life and had a full and good life! The rest of the story, which did not end for many years after 1977 or so

  17. Brad Hoffman Says:

    reading “Godspeed”. almost done/fast read. looked her up online to send her a thumbs-up e-mail. saddened to learn she is gone. but appreciate that she seemed to go for the gusto in life. i applaud you, Laurel!

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