Lee Richardson was one of those rare individuals who balance brilliance and intensity with kindness and humor.
He mastered five languages besides English, established himself as an international businessman, first at SAS Institute and then at several startup firms, and became a real estate investor with his wife, Valerie Blettner.
At the same time, he and Blettner were widely known as gracious and generous. They enjoyed extending hospitality whether throwing elaborate dinner parties in their Durham home for family and friends or hosting strangers from other countries who needed a place to stay while in the area.
The couple's annual Christmas cards, depicting them as everything from butler and maid to sleigh-pulling reindeer at the service of their five dogs were legendary among their broad circle of friends. And along with progressive political causes, Richardson loved playing basketball, had a regular, weekly tennis match with friends, bicycled, ran and swam.
"I never could figure out how Lee did everything he did in the course of a week. He not only had a lot of energy but was highly productive about what he did," said Mimi Saffer, originally a colleague at SAS who became a friend for almost 30 years. "He was so incredibly intelligent, but he was such a regular human being. He was really wide open about everything."
Richardson was 56 when he died in May while on a business trip to Ethiopia. He suffered a pulmonary embolism four days after beginning a new job.
A native of Morganton, Richardson grew up in the town were his grandfather was publisher of the local newspaper and his mother was a teacher.
Both his intelligence and athletic intensity were obvious early, recalled lifelong friend Mac Sasser, as was his love of comic books.
"He had them all categorized in his attic," Sasser said. "We would go upstairs and talk and drink sodas and read comic books."
Too good to lose
The two managed to continue their friendship as Sasser went to UNC-Chapel Hill and Richardson went to Duke, where he majored in Asian studies. He developed a particular fondness and respect for Japan's culture and people while living there after college. Richardson went on to begin his career with SAS, eventually becoming vice president for Asia Pacific and Latin America.
Also employed by the Cary-based company was Blettner, a programmer. She happened to have a spare ticket to a Sting concert in Charlotte; he noticed her long legs and high heels.
"He loved telling people that," Blettner said with a laugh.
The couple dated for only about a month before Richardson went back to Japan to open the SAS office there.
"It was fun; it was exciting. We enjoyed each other," she said. "We had no idea it would last."
This was before e-mail, and Blettner would work late while Richardson would start early so that they could communicate through an early version of instant messaging on the main frame. After a year and a half, he returned to the States because both believed they shared something too good to lose.
Through the course of their relationship, they trekked with elephants in Thailand, visited the beaches of the Galapagos Islands, traveled around the country in support of beagle rescue, and ran their business. Friends said the two, together for 25 years and married for 17, had an extraordinary relationship.
"The shining part of their lives was Lee and Val as a couple," said Betty Fried, a colleague and friend for more than 20 years. "They appreciated each other so much. It was just obvious."
Fun but frugal
Richardson eventually left SAS to test his skills as an entrepreneur, working for several startup companies. Michael Murphy, a colleague at two of them, said Richardson's attitude was among his many strengths.
"He was a very unique person. He was extremely fun to be with. He took his job very seriously, but he didn't take life too seriously. He made everyone around him feel good," Murphy said.
Richardson was also frugal, at least when it came to himself, several friends said.
Murphy, who frequently encouraged him to upgrade his wardrobe, remembered when the two discovered a moth hole in the back of Richardson's sports coat just as they were about to begin an important meeting in Japan.
"He was mortified," Murphy said, but there was no time to fix it. So Murphy followed closely behind Richardson as they walked into and out of the meeting. "We sort of waddled in together."
Interested in friends
When it came to others, Richardson couldn't give enough of himself.
"He was very sweet, kind, always interested in what his friends were doing, intensely interested," said Steve Schewel, a friend from Richardson's days at Duke.
Even though the couple weren't parents, Richardson and Blettner hosted an annual pool party for the children of their friends.
"It wasn't all about Lee. It was about everyone else," Murphy said. "He had a huge number of friends."
Along with his wife, Richardson is survived by his brother and other relatives. The family requests memorial contributions to a scholarship fund set up in his name at Western Piedmont Community College, Western Piedmont Foundation, Inc., 1001 Burkemont Ave., Morganton, 28655.