Man of mystery: Wife of veteran with Alzheimer's searches for his real lineage
By DAN NAKASO | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: June 24, 2012
Curtis Lee was in a fog in an Illinois care facility in March, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, when he looked over at his wife of 51 years and suddenly announced that he was somebody else.
"He said, ‘My name is Choy,'" said his wife, Violet Lee. "I said, ‘Does Mr. Choy have a first name?' and he said, ‘Paul.' I said, ‘Well, then who is Curtis Lee?' He just smiled and went off to La-La Land."
The question of who is Curtis Lee and who is Paul Choy now haunts Violet Lee, 71, who believes her husband was born in Honolulu to a prominent family and attended Punahou School, but has been living under an assumed identity for at least half a century.
His nursing home revelation on March 7 that he was actually someone named Paul Choy provided validation, of sorts, for Violet Lee.
Three years before, she had hired a company that conducts criminal background checks and tracks down missing people to find her husband's family in Honolulu to let them know he was in poor health.
Violet Lee turned over the few documents she could find bearing the name of Curtis Lee, including a military-looking dog tag to People Search, based in Waukegan, Ill.
When People Search owner Joanne Layne researched the number on the tag, it came back under the name Paul Choy, who was born on the same day as Curtis Lee on May 10, 1926.
"That's when we started looking at everything he had told her," Layne said. "None of it could be proven."
Layne checked military, draft, Social Security and other records trying to figure out how Paul Choy became Curtis Lee, apparently sometime after World War II.
She looked for both names in Hawaii high school yearbooks, with no luck, and Punahou officials had no records either, Layne said.
"We don't have anyone named Curtis Lee or Paul Choy in the school's alumni records," Punahou spokeswoman Carlyn Tani said in an email to the Star-Advertiser.
And Paul Choy apparently became Curtis Lee decades before the federal witness protection program went into effect, Layne said.
"This is not typical," she said. "I've never had one like this. Everything he said was a lie."
With her husband's health deteriorating, Violet remains determined to find the truth about the charming, slender man with glasses and prominent forehead whom she met and married within three months in September 1960 in Spokane, Wash.
"There was just something about him that caused me to say, ‘This wouldn't be so bad if I spent the rest of my life with this person,'" Violet Lee said. "He's still very charming and engaging, even though he has difficulty speaking. There are at least three ladies at the nursing home who tell me they take care of him when I'm not there."
But in his current condition, Violet Lee already is dealing with her husband's frustrations and angry outbursts, antipsychotic medications and his inability to clearly articulate his thoughts.
Now, on top of visiting him five days a week, she has taken on the additional task of trying to figure out his true identity. Mostly, she wants to track down his family in Honolulu if they actually exist to give him closure and reconnect him with a place he still dreams about through the haze of his disease.
Their only child, a son named Robert, died in infancy.
"There is something there that's intangible that's driving me," Violet Lee said via telephone from her home in Schaumburg, Ill. "Until somebody tells me I have hit a brick wall and to cut it out and stop, I'm going to do this for him."
She has no anger toward whatever deception her husband may have been perpetuating all these decades because she believes he was protecting her from forces she does not understand.
"I love the man dearly," Violet said. "I don't think there's any evil undercurrents here."
When they met
When they met as co-workers at a small department store in Spokane in 1960, Curtis Lee said he had attended Reed College outside of Portland, Ore., was a law student at Gonzaga University and had been estranged from a prominent family in Honolulu.
Even after they were married, Curtis Lee would get angry whenever Violet asked about his background or why they could not visit his family in Hawaii, an exotic place she still can only dream about from Illinois.
He never had a driver's license or birth certificate that she knew of, hated to be photographed and rarely held a steady job as the couple moved around the country.
After 1998, Curtis Lee never got on an airplane and never had to show identification.
He wouldn't even permit pictures at their wedding. The only photo of them together was taken at someone else's wedding almost 30 years later, in 1988.
In the few photos she has of her husband, Violet Lee said he was sometimes captured off guard, then would demand the negatives of the images.
"He insisted on getting the negatives," she said. "He was not a picture person. It's all part of the puzzle."
The man she knew as Curtis Lee was a charmer who schmoozed her bosses with AT&T to get her management promotions around the country that Violet believes were destined for someone else.
"I wouldn't have had any opportunities if it hadn't been for this charismatic Hawaiian that everyone loved to be around," Violet said. "Does the man love me? Yes, I know he does. So I don't doubt that at all. Was he using me, to the extent that it allowed him to have the freedom to do whatever he wanted? Yes, I believe that."
There were cryptic hints about his past, including Curtis Lee's claim that he had been stationed in the Philippines during the Korean War working in Army intelligence, although he never gave details such as his rank.
Occasionally, he dropped bits of information about his family and his upbringing.
"It was what he didn't say," Violet said. "You can tell there's territory you don't want to tread, and that was territory I didn't want to tread. I knew there was something there that was keeping him from going back."
Curtis Lee said he was an only child who attended Punahou. He said his father, a man possibly named William, was a doctor in Honolulu. William may have had a brother named Walter who worked for the Attorney General's office, possibly for the territorial government. There was a woman, maybe an aunt or cousin, named Ethel, who was an accountant.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, his paternal grandmother turned a mom-and-pop store into a successful food and restaurant business.
"He told me things like he went to Punahou and had lots of friends and they got away with a lot because of his dad's position," Violet Lee said. "But he said there was more to the United States than this little island he was on. He told me to go back would have been claustrophobic, so we just stayed here."
About four years ago, when they were living in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Curtis Lee wandered onto a bus and Violet had to be tracked down to retrieve him.
"He said he was going to Honolulu," Violet remembered. "He said he was going home."
For what she believed was his 86th birthday on May 10, Violet had a Hawaii-themed cake made, complete with palm trees.
She stuck a flower in her hair and greeted her husband in his care home in Long Grove, Ill., with half a dozen lei.
"You should have seen the expression," she said. "When I put the first leis on him, he stuck out his cheek and said, ‘You're supposed to kiss me.' It was like he had gone home."