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In 1969, Dr. Bill Lee was serving in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps in Mississippi when he was tasked with identifying his first deceased body — a sailor died in a plane crash.
“The commanding officer needed one of the dentists to go on these kinds of things,”said Lee, who has served as Hardin County’s coroner for 27 years. “There were four of us. I was the new man on the block. The other three guys didn’t like that. They got sick. I don’t think you can enjoy that kind of stuff. So I got told I had to do it.”
According to Lee,that first body caused him to become sick, but from there on, he developed an interest in forensic dentistry and learned to view it as a challenge to correctly identify the deceased.
During the annual three-day Kentucky Coroner’s Conference last Thursday in Louisville, the 70-year-old was selected to serve as president of the Kentucky Coroner’s Association — a position he held for the first time 20 years ago from 1993 to 1994.
After returning to Hardin County and opening a dental practice in 1971, then-coroner Dr. James Stuteville asked Lee to assist in identifying unrecognizable remains, Lee said. First, it was by volunteer basis, and in 1984, Lee became a deputy coroner.
Two years later, he stepped in as coroner at Stuteville’s encouragement, he said.
“I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into,”Lee said, “but I enjoyed the challenge of it. I still do.”
Only one previous coroner has held the office longer than Lee, according to Hardin County Clerk Kenny Tabb, who went back into 100 years of election records.
From 1925 to 1953, B.T. Perry, a funeral director at Perry & Alvey Funeral Home at the corner of Mulberry Street and Dixie Avenue, held the position, Tabb said. It is possible Perry served as coroner even longer because the results of the 1921 election were not recorded, he said.
In his 27 years as coroner, Lee said he’s seen some oddities as well as tragedies.
As part of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he spent two weeks identifying bodies in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as well as two weeks in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.
He recalled an incident several years ago during which three boys tried to beat a train across the tracks in Cecilia. That night, he said he received three different reactions from the boys’mothers when he notified their families.
“One physically hit me. One went into hysterics and started screaming and yelling, and one was in shock,”Lee said. “She couldn’t say a thing.”
The coroner said encountering the emotional consequences of death is more difficult than the sometimes grisly physical sights.
“You never know when you knock on that door what’s going to happen on the other end,”he said.
When discussing Lee with colleagues and family, the word that most frequently comes up is “dedicated.”
“He’s always very dedicated to giving the families the closure they deserve,”said Elizabethtown Police Detective Pete Chytla, who has worked several long-running, high-profile death investigations with Lee.
Lee’s daughter, Barbara Jones, who works in the city of Elizabethtown’s finance department, said there have been occasions when Lee has had to leave family functions to answer a coroner call, but she added it is part of his duty.
Jones recalled a time when she went with her father to notify a family of a death.
“He has a gift for it,”she said. “He has his own ministry when he goes to talk to families.”
“We’ve always been proud to call him ‘Dad,’”Jones added.
As president of the state coroners’association, Lee’s responsibilities include assessing statewide needs, speaking to state legislators, diffusing problems that arise in individual counties, continuing education and training and organizing response to state disasters. Lee said he’ll serve in the position for a year.
Lee’s current four-year term expires in December 2014. The coroner said he intends to run for one more term before retirement.
Chief Deputy Coroner Kenneth Spangenberger, who has worked with Lee for more than 20 years, said when Lee chooses to leave office, it will be “a hell of a pair of shoes to fill.”
“I quite honestly can’t say enough nice things about him,”he said. “He’s just a good person.”
Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or email@example.com.