Kaffeinate owner Kong Lee remembered as a devoted father who lived the American dream

Memorial service held for Kong Lee in Durham

A memorial service for Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate who was killed in Durham's gas explosion, was held at New Horizon Church on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. His daughter Diana spoke at length about her loving father, her brother Raymond by her side.
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A memorial service for Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate who was killed in Durham's gas explosion, was held at New Horizon Church on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. His daughter Diana spoke at length about her loving father, her brother Raymond by her side.

Kong Lee, the owner of Kaffeinate coffee shop, was remembered Wednesday as a selfless man who lived the epitome of the American dream.

Lee, 61, was killed April 10 in a gas explosion on North Duke Street. During a funeral at New Horizon Church, dozens of friends and family members recalled knowing Lee as a committed family man who was selfless with his time and thoughtful when came to running his business.

Lee’s children, Diana Lee, with her brother, Raymond, standing by her side, eulogized her father with tears streaming down both of their faces. Their father, she said, was a man who loved them and his home of Durham.

“He loved seeing people,” Diana Lee said. “He went out of his way to make people feel at home.”

Above all, he loved his family. She recalled how much he loved taking her and her brother to the beach. Several photos showing them at the beach were displayed.

She also talked about his early life as a 14-year-old immigrant in New York.

“Sometimes he felt like he was caught between Korea and America,” she said. “But he lived the American dream.”

Lee owned a string of businesses, including a dry cleaning shop. He was an Amazon package handler, in his 50s, and once secretly delivered pizzas, she said, without telling his kids.

“He didn’t want us to be worried or ashamed,” she said.

But opening Kaffeinate in 2017 was their gift to him, she said, so he could have a job without physical hardships. And he embraced making it a place for people to feel comfortable, to feel accepted, to feel at home. He served his coffee with a smile. He read every internet review, taking comments to heart. When one person mentioned dust on a shelf, he spent the day scouring the shop.

“We are so proud of the shop,” she said. “It was something he loved to do. We will honor him by making him proud.”

First responders continue to go through the rubble left by an explosion near Brightleaf Square in Durham on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. City officials spoke to the media about the on-going efforts to secure the area and make sure all are safe.

A men’s choir sings “Amazing Grace” in both English and Korean at the funeral service for Kong Yung Lee at New Horizon Church in Durham, NC on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Julia Wal jwall@newsobserver.com

Singers from the First Korean Baptist Church of Durham sang “Amazing Grace” — the first verse in English and the last two in Korean.

Pastor Charlie McNeill also recounted several stories about Lee, including how he instilled values in his children.

“He taught them to never give up,” McNeill said. “He taught them to do the right thing and to see the best in people. For a man to teach these values to his children, it makes him remarkable.”

He also talked about Lee’s love of golf. McNeill quoted golfer Ben Hogan, who said, “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.”

Lee made the most of his round, McNeill said.

McNeill also said Lee loved music, especially by Tom Jones. “The Green Green Grass of Home” was used as the background music for a video tribute to Lee during the service. Lee also like oldies from Motown, and those songs played as people entered the sanctuary before the service.

It will likely take some time to determine the full financial fallout from Wednesday’s deadly gas explosion in downtown Durham that left one person dead and more than two dozen others injured. More than $100 million worth of property was damaged.

Lee was inside the coffee shop on the morning of April 10, when gas from a leaking pipe exploded. It destroyed Kaffeinate and damaged surrounding buildings. Twenty-five people were injured.

In addition to Lee, PSNC utility worker Jay Rambeaut died April 25 after succumbing to his injuries. His funeral was April 30 in Durham.

Diana and Raymond Lee have said they plan to eventually reopen Kaffeinate to honor their father.

But for now, they will continue to miss him every day, knowing at least that their father succeeded in having an impact on those he met. The community has rallied to support the Lee family, with more than $152,000 raised through GoFundMe and other fundraisers and an outpouring of messages about his influence.

“We can all be a little kinder,” Diana Lee said. “We can all work a little harder. We can all keep his memory alive.”

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.