By NANCY K. OWENS
WORLD TRAVELER: Gary Lee took time to visit the Greater Tulsa Reporter office on a recent visit to his hometown. The Washington Post travel writer has written an article about Tulsa that is scheduled to appear his paper in late March.
GTR Newspapers photo
Of all the jobs in the world, what would be “the dream job?” A small, informal poll was conducted, and the results are revealing. Ten out of ten people, one hundred percent, think that Tulsa native Gary Lee has “the dream job.”
What is Gary Lee’s job? He reads about domestic and world affairs, domestic and international politics, culture, dining, recreation and other interesting topics. He talks to people and keeps notes of various worldwide events and festivals such as Mardi Gras, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Oktoberfest in Munich, the New York Marathon, Carnivale in Venice and so on.
On a quarterly basis, he makes a list of places in the United States and all over the world that would appeal to people traveling on vacation or those with a permanent case of wanderlust. He presents this information to a travel editor at a major U.S. newspaper. He starts globetrotting with all expenses paid by the newspaper, in addition to a comfortable salary. What, exactly, is Gary Lee’s job? He is a travel writer for the Washington Post.
Lee’s journey began on Tulsa’s north side. He is the fourth of eleven children born to Fred and Elreatha Lee, five girls and six boys in all.
As a child, Lee attended Ralph Bunche and Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary Schools and Carver Middle School. Early on he was academically ambitious and knew he loved writing. Through an opportunity with the Head Start program, he was the one student from Tulsa selected for a place at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Lee attended Andover from ninth grade through his senior year, by which time he was the editor for the school newspaper. He graduated in 1974. He wanted to go abroad and spent a year in England at Uppingham School, located about 100 miles north of London. This was followed by four years at Amherst, where he graduated with a double major in Russian Language and Development Studies.
A brief rundown of Lee’s career path reveals a steady journey leading to what is now an established position in the field. Fresh out of college, he was offered positions at the Washington Post and the Minneapolis Tribune. Lee decided to go to Minneapolis. When asked why, he replies, “I wanted to return to the middle of the country. You need to follow your instincts in journalism. I knew that most of the serious, truly interesting news does not come out of the typical centers of power. It was a good way to start my career and the Tribune was an excellent ‘classroom’.”
After his stint at the Tribune, Lee spent a year as a writer for the National Section at Time Magazine’s New York City Bureau followed by two-and-a-half years as a correspondent for Time in their Washington, D.C. Bureau. Time then dispatched him to Bonn, Germany, for three and-a-half years, where he covered middle European politics and culture. In 1985, the Washington Post hired Lee and brought him back to D.C. for six months, then sent him to Russia to be the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow. Lee spent five years covering the former Soviet Union.
In 1989, he took a one-year sabbatical and traveled across the former Soviet Union, an experience that, Lee says, will lead to a book someday. This adventure was followed by a six-month appointment as a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian Institution. While there he produced a thesis on the American Press Corps and how it was affected by glasnost and perestroika. Upon completing the thesis, Lee returned to the Post as a national staff reporter. He worked in two different capacities: for two years reporting on lobbying and “following the money trail” and for several years reporting on the environment.
In 1998, Lee began working as a travel writer for the Post. When asked why he made the switch he says, “I was ready for something different. I realized I loved places a lot, travel, people and distinguishing between them. I thought, ‘Why not have a go at this?’” Alas, there was no slot available in the travel section. So, they created one for him.
Lee spends about half of his time covering domestic travel and half on international, spending more time in Europe because he lived there. He says the typical time frame for each story is about a week for travel and one or two weeks for writing.
When asked about the three most memorable places he has been, he says, “Salvador Bahia in Brazil, Hong Kong and Cuba. All were different than I expected and rich in culture.”
It’s a dream job but Lee does not intend to hold onto it forever. He explains, “Although there is an endless number of places to go, I think if you are going to be true to yourself you have to continually set the bar higher. I picture myself in the future doing longer magazine pieces and books. There are sociological and political issues that really interest me that I would like to write about. I also like the idea of living abroad again.”
Though currently based in D.C., Lee could easily settle down abroad again. He owns an apartment in Paris, a home in Tobago and a small hotel in Arequipa, Peru. With a business partner, he runs all three properties as Bed & Breakfasts.
His experiences in Peru have inspired him to undertake a new venture. He and his business partner will be opening a Peruvian restaurant in D.C. in late spring. When asked how he manages all of these responsibilities, he says, “I believe in all aspects of life it is important to set the bar high, continue to learn, and think about reinventing yourself in ways. I feel like a juggler. As long as you don’t drop the ball it’s fun and exciting.”
When Lee talks about the appeal of travel writing, he feels the pull of his Oklahoma roots and brings up Will Rogers. “I feel about places the same way Will Rogers felt about people,” he says, “I’ve never been in a place I didn’t like in some way.” He continues, “It’s rare, and in some ways a dream profession to be able to go to a place on a whim, or a hunch, spend a week discovering it and get paid for it. I would travel to places and write about it even if it weren’t my job. Being able to do it for a living is very gratifying.”
Lee reflects on growing up in Tulsa. “When I was living abroad, and often during my travels, a lot of people ask me where I’m from. When I say ‘Tulsa’ they are surprised. Those that have heard of Tulsa mistakenly think of it as a relatively ‘hick’ place.” He continues, “But Tulsa is a big part of who I am. On some level, to the extent that I have become successful is owed to the fact that I come from here. Growing up, I had a household and people around me that were supportive. The good things that have happened in my life and successes I have had are not coincidental to an upbringing in Tulsa, they are directly connected to it.”
Lee has recently written a travel story on Tulsa that will be featured in the Washington Post at the end of March.