Bro. Lee Watts’ tours of the Capitol are equal parts history, humor and religious sermon.
Lee is the unofficial chaplain of the General Assembly, and his work includes offering tours to Christian schools or church groups. His position is funded by churches and private donations.
During a recent tour, the 39-year-old Lee peppered about 20 students from Tabernacle Christian Academy in Nicholasville with humorous questions and anecdotes. Sarcasm and hyperbole were mixed in with factoids on art, architecture, politics and civics.
In the elegant State Reception Room, Lee described how the Austrian rug woven by hand in 1910 remains in good condition. It was kept in storage for many years in the same warehouse that held the Ark of the Convenant as seen in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he claimed.
The room also features “infinity mirrors” on opposite ends of the room that appear to reflect each other unendingly. It wasn’t until he visited this room that he noticed he was losing hair on the back of his head, Lee jokes.
“Whether it’s a short or long session, each makes me lose more of my hair,” he said.
Lee told another tall tale about legislators’ computers on the House and Senate floors. Legislators don’t have keyboards at their desks to prevent them from wasting time on Facebook and YouTube, he claimed.
During the tour he quizzed students on current events and the legislative process. He good-naturedly threatened them with a test.
The tour also includes a heavy dose of preaching – Lee punctuates the tour with scripture passages and urges the group to be active and involved with politics.
He warns that “anti-Christian forces” are organized and the faithful must be too. Some of his comments get an emphatic “amen” from chaperones.
Lee gives tours once a day on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the legislative session and less often during the interim.
He draws on his previous experience as a door-to-door vacuum salesman, public relations officer in the Air Force and stand-up comedian to make the tours entertaining. He was born in Alton, Ill., in 1971, and his father worked at the Corvette factory in nearby St. Louis.
Lee said his childhood was ideal. His father taught him karate, and Lee carries on the tradition with his son.
“I wish every child in America had a home with love and security. We could play in the street – there weren’t any drug dealers. We just had to be back by dark.”
The family moved to Bowling Green when the plant relocated in the 1980s. Kentucky offered a change of pace that Lee found enjoyable.
“When people asked how you were doing, they actually waited for an answer. We found that it was not the frantic pace we had up north.”
His grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and the family went to church on Wednesday evenings and twice on Sunday.
Lee enrolled at Western Kentucky University to study speech, communication and broadcasting. He was a member of the debate team and won two national titles.
However, after his sophomore year, he got a summer job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door. He was so good at it, he decided to drop out and work full-time.
“I was the best salesman east of the Mississippi,” Lee claims.
He said he once sold three vacuums to one home. The first was to the couple who lived there, but the sales pitch made them late to a party. Some friends came to check on the couple and Lee sold a vacuum to them as well.
Eventually, a third search party was sent to find the missing guests, and they bought a Kirby too, Lee said.
“I’d sold three in the same day before but never three in the same house,” he said. “It was quite the experience and was a bit of the legend in the that industry.”
Lee was quickly promoted and began training other salesman. He eventually opened his own store, which ended up being a terrible decision.
“I lost everything,” he explains.
He ended up homeless and unemployed. The only book he had was a Bible and it lead him to renew his faith.
Back on track
“I had gone to church my whole life, but going to church doesn’t get you into heaven. Accepting Christ as your savior does, and I had never done that.”
He still carries the same Bible today – the pages have numerous notes in the margins, and the gold trim on the spine and pages has worn away. It was a Christmas gift from his parents in 1987.
“I need another one with wider margins,” he says.
He still reads it several times a day and has carried it with him to more than 30 countries.
“This is the bread of life,” Lee said holding up his Bible.
Lee moved back home, found a job and finished his degree.
While finishing his degree, Lee performed as a stand-up comedian. He said he never told dirty jokes, just observational stories about everyday life, like Jerry Seinfeld.
He performed in clubs in Kentucky and Tennessee and considered moving to New York or Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy but decided against it.
“I see a lot of very talented people who never made it.”
So, Lee decided to enlist in the Air Force.
“I was raised to be very patriotic. Plus, as a guy, I love gadgets and gizmos and the Air Force has the best gadgets and gizmos.”
He first served as the chief mechanic on F-16 fighters, but the repetitive motions aggravated an old elbow injury from his karate training. His elbow still makes a popping and crunching sound and hurts when it rains.
Military commanders offered to let him leave the Air Force, but Lee decided to stay and train to become a public affairs officer. He gave tours of the base, spoke on TV and worked with journalists.
While stationed at a base in Germany, Lee helped organize a press conference to celebrate the unit’s unbroken safety record.
As officers began to speak, an A-10 Warthog ground attack fighter crashed directly behind them. The pilots parachuted to safety and an investigation later determined a bird being sucked into the engine caused the accident. But that wasn’t comforting at the time, Lee said.
“What a wonderful thing for safety day,” he lamented.
He was promoted to technical sergeant and later served as a liaison at the NATO headquarters in Europe. Lee was stationed in 30 countries including Korea, Germany, Japan, Bulgaria, Kosvo, France, Greece and Turkey.
He also was deployed to Iraq where he worked with Middle Eastern journalists. Lee said he thinks some of them were passing information to terrorists and insurgents.
Lee then began to volunteer for missions outside the base. In one instance, an insurgent threw a pipe bomb at the truck Lee was driving on his birthday.
“I was able to avoid it, with the Lord’s blessing, but I think you should have a free pass on your birthday.”
Called to preach
While stationed in Italy, Lee said he felt a calling to preach and become a missionary in America. He was hesitant because he wanted to complete 20 years of service in the Air Force and retire with a pension.
But Lee relented and left the Air Force with a pledge of $25 a month in support from a church in Italy. He began preaching at churches in Kentucky and eventually learned about Bro. Joe Adams, who previously served as the unofficial chaplain to lawmakers for almost 30 years.
Adams was a Vietnam veteran and had been exposed to Agent Orange. His health was declining, and he was looking for someone to continue the ministry.
“I was praying for a Paul. He was praying for God to send him a Timothy,” Lee said in reference to the Biblical mentor and disciple.
Last year was a transition as Joe prepared to retire and Lee stepped into his shoes.
Lee lives in Lexington with his wife of 11 years, and she home schools their 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. They met while Lee was deployed to Korea and she was serving as a Christian missionary.
Lee spends five days a week at the Capitol where he counsels lawmakers, provides Bible study lessons and hosts a prayer breakfast twice a week.
He attended the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast last year, and says he was concerned about the tone of the event.
“Do you know how many times I heard Jesus’ name?” Lee asked. “Zero.”
Instead, religious leaders prayed in the name of “the divine” and love, he said.
At one of his semi-weekly prayer breakfasts, Lee addressed about a dozen lawmakers. They met in the annex cafeteria and had a special breakfast buffet.
He took prayer requests and then presented a devotional titled “fired up or watered down.”
Lee discussed various Biblical figures who stood up against authoritative figures to highlight the need for Christians to stand up for their beliefs.
Other activities include a 15-minute weekly radio program and Bible study for legislative staffers.
His day sometimes begins as early as 4 a.m. when he wakes up to answer prayer requests from legislators.
He offers counseling to lawmakers who request it and deals with many of the same issues other pastors deal with such as illness and family discord. Lee said he doesn’t try to replace the preachers lawmakers visit in their hometowns.
Lee also said he tries to avoid dealing with political issues but does voice his thoughts on moral issues. He recently testified in
House committee on health and welfare urging them to allow a floor vote on SB 9.
The legislation would require a doctor to perform an ultrasound and discuss it with any woman seeking an abortion. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House committee.
Lee also preaches at churches across Kentucky and performs his own patriotic sermons in which he honors veterans and other public servants.
“I bleed Air Force blue. I pray for my brothers and sisters in arms every day.”
A few lawmakers resent his presence at the Capitol but most are supportive, Lee said.
“As long as the legislators don’t throw rotten vegetables at me, then I guess I’ll be alright.”
Despite the long hours, Lee said his patriotic and spiritual passion carries him forward. He plans to continue his work at the Capitol for 30 years.
“I hope when I roll out of bed each morning the devil says, ‘Oh no, he’s up.’”