Rhett Lee had forgotten his drink at lunch that Friday, so he went back through the cafeteria line at
Telfair County Middle School.
He had just settled in his seat when his friend, Allie Holland, punched him in the arm.
“I didn’t think much about it,’’ he said. “She hits me all the time. I knew she wasn’t kidding when she
almost broke my arm.’’
He turned to see her face flush with fear. Her skin was a shade of purple. Her eyes were red and filled
Allie was desperately trying to speak, but the words would not come. She made a gesture by holding
her hands to her throat.
She was choking.
Rhett is 13 years old with a birthday coming up in December. He has known Allie since they used to
hang out in diapers. They are in every class together at Telfair Middle. They killed their first deer while
hunting on the same day.
Allie had taken a bite of hamburger steak. She said it was too hot to chew but she was trying to show
good manners and not spit it out. Suddenly, it lodged in her windpipe. She was terrified.
Rhett sprung from his chair and grabbed her from behind. She is taller than he is, but he lifted her with
the strength and adrenaline of at least a dozen eighth-graders.
He wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. After all, he had never performed the Heimlich maneuver. But
he had seen it demonstrated on television. He had studied it on a wall poster at a local restaurant.
Rhett has suffered from severe asthma all his life, so he understands what it’s like not to be able to
catch your breath.
One thought crossed Rhett’s mind when he grabbed Allie, clenched his fists against her abdomen and
“I hope to God I ain’t too late.’’
A teacher, Elaine Page, noticed Rhett had gotten out of his assigned seat. But she did not immediately
realize she was witnessing a young hero in action.
“He is always so playful,’’ she said. “When I first saw him jumping up and down behind her, I told him to
Rhett’s quick actions saved his friend. Although they were able to giggle about it later, they also have
been giving thanks to a multitude of guardian angels for watching over them.
“I was shaking,’’ said Rhett. “I could barely finish my lunch. I don’t think I calmed down until halfway
through fifth period.’’
Rhett’s mom, Wendy Lee, teaches gifted students at Telfair Middle School. She did not learn about her
son’s heroics until later.
She said he was quiet on the way home from school that day a few weeks ago, so she asked him what
he was thinking.
“Mama,’’ he said. “Allie could be gone right now.’’
Wendy felt nine years of emotions come rushing back.
“It’s something that is a part of our lives every day,’’ she said. “We are keenly aware of things like this.
Rhett understands how quickly life can be taken away.’’
The grief keeps Wendy and her husband, Jonsey, and the rest of her family in its grips. She wears a
silver necklace around her neck. It is a figure of her 15-month-old daughter, Sailor Kate, in a hat and
Sailor Kate died in February 2001 when Wendy’s father, Clif “Randy” Yawn, accidentally backed over
her with his car in the driveway. Rhett, who was 5 years old at the time, witnessed the tragedy.
Randy and his wife, Betty, were taking Rhett and Sailor Kate to the cemetery to place flowers on the
grave of Betty’s mother, who had died a week earlier. Marie “Mama Rie” Fowler had a grocery store in
Helena for more than 40 years.
The day of Sailor’s funeral, there were pink bows and teddy bears spread across every corner of the
county. Some businesses even closed their doors.
In big cities, death often comes and goes without serving notice. But in small communities like McRae
and Helena, the sadness paces every front porch and sits together in every church pew.
Rhett got his name partly because of his grandmother’s love of “Gone With the Wind.’’ Sailor was given
her name because her grandfather was an old Navy man who loved anything nautical, even though he
lived in landlocked McRae.
Randy — his grandkids called him “Poppy” — was one of Telfair’s most respected citizens. He worked
as a nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dublin.
He was commissioned to carve a replica of the Statue of Liberty that has become a landmark in
downtown McRae. He did other work as well, creating an Indian from a tree in nearby Little Ocmulgee
He later built a memorial gazebo in the driveway where the accident took place. He filled it with
carvings of ducks, hearts and baby angels.
Randy lost his battle with cancer two years ago, but ask anybody in this town and they’ll tell you he
really died of a broken heart.
Rhett was close to his grandfather. “Poppy” had used his medical knowledge to walk Rhett through
what he should do in the event of an asthma attack. Wendy is convinced her dad might also have
coached Rhett about what to do if someone stopped breathing or was choking.
Rhett is outgoing, athletic and loves the outdoors. His mother compares him to Huck Finn.
He also has what she calls “impeccable balance.’’ Randy once bought a unicycle at a yard sale. Rhett
picked it up one day, knocked off the rust and learned to ride it. He did so well he advanced to a
“giraffe’’ unicycle. It is 5 feet off the ground — as tall as he is. He has to climb a ladder to mount it. No
broken bones yet, either.
A year after Sailor Kate’s death, Wendy gave birth to another daughter, Randi Chele, who is now 7. They
named her Randi, after Wendy’s father.
In two weeks, Sailor Kate would have celebrated her 10th birthday. Wendy has seen the circle of life
take shape around her. She and her family started the Sailor Kate Ministry (www.sailorkate.com).
The ministry sends homemade quilts to families who have experienced similar tragedies. It also
donates “Sailor’s Snuggles” teddy bears to law enforcement agencies, hospitals and children’s homes.
Wendy has shared her testimony in a number of local churches. This past spring, during Mother’s Day,
Wendy traveled with her mother and sister-in-law to California to present a quilt to a grieving mother.
The woman had returned from work one day and accidentally ran over and killed her 5-year-old
daughter, who was riding her tricycle in the driveway.
Wendy has always considered Allie to be “a member of our family.’’
She hugs her son every day and tells him: “God put you in the right place.’’
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or email@example.com.
‘I hope to God I ain’t too late’
By Ed Grisamore - firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published in the Macon Telegraph on Sunday, Nov. 2,
2009. It was written by popular columnist Ed Grisamore.