Service, education, and the arts have led Dallas Lee on an interesting journey. His involvement with the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival began five years ago when he submitted a dramatic reading that won first place at the local competition.
Dallas Lee’s road to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 2011 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, promoting art therapy and rehabilitation, was long and winding.
As his story goes, “In the ninth grade I made a trade with my best friend—my girlfriend for his harmonica,” says Lee.
He learned to play the harmonica, and his love of music and the arts grew.
During high school Lee performed with the choir and continued to sing with groups while in the Air Force, when he was forced onto light duty because of his spinal disease. In college, Lee did some theater and began honing his skills at dramatic readings. As time went on, he got involved with the music therapy program at the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System.
When you hear Lee’s deep, clear voice, you completely understand why he would be drawn to dramatic readings. In fact, you wonder why he never became a radio announcer. This long and winding road led him to Fayetteville, Ark., for the 2011 festival.
Call of Duty
The Korean War was in full force when young Lee decided to drop out of high school and join the Air Force.
“This was not uncommon for those times,” says Lee of his early days in the military.
Singing was one of the many talents on display at the 2011 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, in Fayetteville, Ark.
After completing basic training, he was stationed in Puerto Rico on a Strategic Air Command base as an engine mechanic, onboard B-50s flying missions to Korea.
“Quite exciting stuff for a young kid from Nebraska,” says Lee.
As the war subsided, Lee was rotated back to the United States to Topeka, Kan., and then to Lincoln, Neb., where later he was honorably discharged. Like many of his friends, Lee re-enlisted in the military, and it was at this point when he began to have back pain and was diagnosed with a spinal disease. By 1957, Lee was honorably discharged from the military for the second time.
A Good Life
As he settled into civilian life, Lee decided to make good use of his GI benefits and go to college. But, first things first.
“I needed to finish high school,” says Lee, which he did, graduating in 1965 from Lincoln High School.
Upon receiving his high school diploma, Lee went on to be accepted into the University of Nebraska. He earned three degrees and, ironically enough, became a teacher.
“Fortunately, it was sit-down work, which is what I needed,” says Lee.
Teaching and education was clearly his passion, and he went on to become a high school principal for many years. Life was good for Lee and his family, and they enjoyed the great outdoors, fishing in particular. As retirement approached, his back pain increased and he sought treatment at the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System in Topeka, to determine the cause of his problems.
In 1998, doctors diagnosed him with stenosis of his spine, and Lee decided it was time to retire. During his early years of retirement, his spinal issues progressed and he found himself in a wheelchair. He now has a spiffy new power chair, courtesy of VA, which gets him wherever he wants to go.
Lee’s involvement with the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival began five years ago. After submitting a tape of a dramatic reading, which won first place at the local competition, Lee was invited to the Creative Arts Festival in St. Louis. There, he had a chance to perform as a dramatist and sing bass in the choir. Lee’s journey continued with award-winning performances at the Creative Arts Festivals in Riverside, Calif., and La Crosse, Wis. He returned to Fayetteville, Ark., once again winning the hearts of those in the audience and veterans alike.
Lee’s reading of a creative rendition of the Preamble to the Constitution won a first-place medal locally in 2011, but that is not what was heard at the festival. Lee was once again one of the very talented singers in the choir and had the honor to introduce the master of ceremonies, country music artist Michael Peterson, at the Stage Show on October 23, 2011.
A Fortunate Man
The Creative Arts Festival is not only a place where veterans can showcase their talents—it is also where they come together in support of one another. What is most noticeable at the festival is the camaraderie and their genuine caring for each other. Veterans participating span generations from World War II to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet there is no visible generation gap. Young and old perform side by side, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
“I’m a very fortunate man,” says Lee, “I’ll be 78 years old next month, and I’m pretty doggone independent because of this chair and the lift in my van. If I did not have these things, I would probably be a crippled-up old man complaining about everything. But I’m not. I can still drive my van, and I get around. I am a very lucky man, and I have to thank VA, too; they provided these opportunities and this equipment for me.”
It is evident Lee is elevated to new heights when he performs at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. His art, wheelchair, and inspiration are driving forces propelling him onward and upward through life’s journey.
More than 100 veterans from across the nation showcased their talent in art, music, dance, drama and creative writing at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Fayetteville, Ark., October 17–23, 2011.
“The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is a showcase for the talents that America’s veterans possess and their will to surmount significant health challenges,” says Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “This annual festival highlights the wonderful work that is accomplished throughout the year in VA’s creative arts therapy programs and local competitions across the nation.”
The Creative Arts Festival is the culmination of a year-long fine arts competition involving more than 3,000 participants nationwide. It is presented each year by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA), and Help Hospitalized Veterans (HHV).
The festival, one of VA’s six national rehabilitation events (National Veterans Wheelchair Games, National Veterans Golden Age Games, National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, National Veterans TEE Tournament, National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic), is open to all veterans receiving care at any VA medical facility. The next festival is set for Boston, October 8–14, 2012.
For more information, visit creativeartsfestival.va.gov.