The Washington Post

John Kelly’s Washington: Saying thank you to the country that changed his life

Jimmy Lee of Berwyn Heights, Maryland on July 6, 2012. Lee built a path near his home through public land to a nearby park. This is the bridge he made over a little creek. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

To get to the path you leave Jimmy Lee’s house in Berwyn Heights, walk down Goucher Drive, turn left and head into the woods.

It’s a dirt path, about three feet wide. The dirt is firm and compacted, making it look as if the path has been there forever. It’s been there only since May, when the 64-year-old Mr. Lee spent three days building it.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Why did you build it, Mr. Lee?

“Because there is a beautiful park there and the path is too long,” Mr. Lee says as we plunge from the heat of the street into the relative cool of the sun-dappled woods.

He means the park around Lake Artemesia. And he means the official path. To get to it from Mr. Lee’s neighborhood you have to walk out of your way. There already was a quicker, homemade path through the woods but it was in a bad place, often boggy with mud. The only way to get across a little creek was to traverse a fallen log.

It was a bad path. Mr. Lee decided to build a good one, on higher ground, with better materials.

As we walk along the path Mr. Lee moves his hands in sweeping motions, showing how he cleared the leaves from the ground. He points to the stumps of tiny trees he felled. He indicates lengths of black corrugated plastic drainage pipe he has placed under the path in two places.

“They call this a culvert, so maybe water can go through,” he says.

The path leads to Lake Artemesia and, beyond that, to the University of Maryland. Among the renters in Mr. Lee’s house are Maryland students who are thankful for a more direct route to the university.

“If you’re skillful, you can use a bicycle,” Lee says.

We stop for a while at the highlight of Mr. Lee’s path: a 10-foot wooden bridge over the creek. He salvaged old 2-by-6s from a neighbor, cut them to size in his front yard, stacked them in a metal shopping trolley and wheeled them to the creek. He hammered the three-foot lengths atop two spans and rested the ends on blocks of concrete.

The whole thing cost Mr. Lee $5, the amount he spent on galvanized nails.

“I’m very handy,” Mr. Lee says.

I ask him why and he tells me about his life and what brought him to the United States from China 25 years ago.

His father was a professor at Shandong Agricultural College in eastern China. He had attended Cornell University and spoke English well.

“That was why he got in trouble during the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Lee says. When Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Lee’s family was among its millions of victims.

“You cannot believe the stories,” Mr. Lee says. Students at his father’s university were ordered to build a jail. His father was put in the jail. The students made him work in the fields. They beat him.

“They think people can be divided into different groups: good groups and bad groups,” Mr. Lee says of the communists under Mao. “My family belonged to the bad group.”

Mr. Lee spent six years working in a factory before before he was allowed to go to university at age 30. When he was 40 he was allowed to come to the United States with his wife and daughter to get his master’s at Maryland. He became a U.S. citizen in 1999.

Back in his house, Mr. Lee proudly brings up a photo on his computer. It’s of his daughter, Chrissy, the chief operating officer of a new District charter school. She’s at a White House Christmas party, standing with the Obamas.

Mr. Lee looks at the photo. He thinks of the paths he’s traveled, the distance he’s come.

“I think this is a very good gift your people gave me,” Mr. Lee says of his life in the United States. “I think I need to do something good for the people.”

So he built a path.

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