The ‘Big Kahuna’ was some kind of wonderful

The ‘Big Kahuna’ was some kind of wonderful

Of course you already know that our buddy Lee LaBreche will go down as one of the most beloved characters in the history of the Mining City.

But did you also know that he was the world’s all-time greatest physical education teacher?

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the students he took to Dairy Queen in the middle of gym class.

Yes, instead of making the class do jumping jacks and pushups, Mr. LaBreche loaded up the students and took them for ice cream.

Lee’s longtime friend Tim Norbeck was BC’s principal at the time. He found out about the trip when his phone rang.

“Our only run in was when I got a call about our short bus in the Dairy Queen drive through,” Norbeck said of LaBreche. “He took his P.E. class for a treat.”

Since the purpose of physical education is for students to get some physical activity, the principal understandably did not want the students to take a bus to DQ. Lee, though, wanted to reward his students.

“We compromised,” Norbeck said. “They could walk to Dairy Queen from the high school the next time. At least that way you can justify that as a P.E. class.”

What else would you expect from the man we called the “Big Kahuna,” a self-described “husky” fella with a supersized appetite for life?

Lee passed away at home Friday night, and our community is left with a Kahuna-sized hole in its soul that can never be filled.

The Kahuna was a teacher, coach, brother and friend to so many.

“He was the good cop,” Norbeck said of their days coaching together on the Butte Central football team. “Every staff needs a good cop.”

Lee had a tremendous defensive mind, and the Maroons were always sound defensively when Lee was their defensive coordinator. He could also break down a game as a color man on a radio call better than anyone.

“He was an organized son of a gun,” Norbeck said. “He prepared. Those kids knew what they had to do.”

As the head golf coach at Montana Tech, Lee turned the Orediggers into contenders by convincing great players like Sean Benson of Billings come to Butte instead of playing for a bigger school.

He even tried to convince Libby superstar Ryggs Johnston to play for the Orediggers and become an engineer instead of going to Arizona State.

That is almost like asking Zion Williamson to be an Oredigger instead of a Blue Devil, yet Lee thought he might be able to pull it off.

As the Butte-Silver Bow coroner, Lee was a pillar of strength in so many times of tragedy. He helped people and the community as a whole deal with times of unbearable sadness and heartache simply by being Lee.

“His compassion for people was first rate,” Norbeck said. “I experienced it personally with my father’s death. Not easy for a longtime friend to do.”

When 14 people, including seven children, died in a plane crashed into Butte’s Holy Cross Cemetery in 2009, Lee also took care of the emergency responders who got the call to that horrific scene.

“He was concerned about those emergency responders,” Norbeck said. “He made sure they got the counselling they needed.”

Lee was also there in the good times, whether it was helping run the South West Montana Junior Golf Tour, wearing the Shriner’s Fez in Fourth of July parade, playing 36 holes of golf or just smiling and bellowing his great belly laugh.

Nobody had a better sense of humor than Lee. He could tell the best jokes, sometimes clean but usually dirty.

During the week the West team was in Butte preparing for the Montana East-West Shrine Game a few years ago, Lee had a little fun with the fact that one of the assistant coaches was creeped out by the body bags in the back of Lee’s truck.

So, Lee had someone climb into a bag and wait. The coaches then all stopped for a post-practice B.S. session by Lee’s truck in the parking lot between Tech’s Alumni Coliseum and HPER Complex.

The coach jumped when he thought the bag made a nose and moved slightly. He took off running when they guy started to climb out.

Lee’s entire body would shake as he told that story.

Those of us lucky enough to hear those stories also knew Lee was a man of incredibly strong character.  When he was at his lowest point last summer, Lee showed everyone else.

Not long after making it through the primary election in the race for Butte’s justice of the peace, Lee was arrested for drunk driving following a bachelor party for a friend.

Instead of cowering and hiding, Lee stood tall.

He admitted he was guilty to the charge and accepted the consequences.

Embarrassed, Lee addressed the situation with an op-ed in The Montana Standard.

“In my twenty-two years in the BSB Coroner’s office, I have witnessed firsthand the damage and despair of drunk driving — over and over,” Lee wrote. “That fact makes it all the harder to explain the complacency that led to my getting justifiably arrested for a DUI last month.”

Lee knew he was a longshot at best to win the election even without the DUI. He trailed Ben Pezdark by too many votes following the primary. The publicity of the arrest was a political death sentence.

When most people would have quit, however, Lee stayed in the race. He did it for his family, and he did it for his friends. He did it to regain his own self-respect.

“Butte is a town that is about hard work and second chances,” he wrote. “I pledge to do all that I can to earn back the public’s trust.”

If Lee would have lived to be 100, he would have never been in that situation again. Unfortunately, he only lived to be 55.

Lee’s passing came in the middle of the Western C Divisional basketball tournaments, which took place at the Maroon Activities Center. Lee was the director of the MAC.

On Saturday morning, hours after we all learned of Lee’s passing, Tom O’Neill posted the following on Facebook: “The MAC will sell out tonight yet it will be incredibly empty.”

That is the best way to describe the Mining City right now.

The countless people who played football with, were coached by or coached with Lee are feeling that emptiness. Those who saw his friendly face while they dealt with their personal tragedy are feeling it. Those who just loved to see him smile are feeling it.

Lee was universally known as Kahuna, which was an appropriate nickname. Paul Panisko and I, though, called him “Mr. Wonderful.”

Lee was a frequent guest on our radio show “KBOW Overtime,” and nobody was a better guest. The best part of the shows with Lee were the commercials, when he could tell us the really good stories.

One night, Lee jokingly referred to himself on air as “Mr. Wonderful,” and with us it stuck.

Every time we called him that, it got a good eyeroll from his wife, Kim, and his daughter, Aleesha, which I assume was Lee’s point.

When you really think of it, though, is there a better way to describe Lee than wonderful?

His ice cream-eating P.E. students would certainly say no.

— Bill Foley writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

Relatives and friends of the Big Kahuna may call Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m. at St. Ann’s Church for visitations. Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. 2 comments

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  • Dorothy Robinson
    February 26, 2019, 1:01 pm

    Lee was someone whose word I knew I could trust so last friday morning I call Lee and questioned something he told me I should have known he wasn’t feeling well. I am so sorry.

  • Seaneen Prendergast
    February 28, 2019, 11:05 am

    Lee was a good friend and colleague. My husband had the pleasure of teaching and coaching him. In the circle of life Lee taught our son. He was one of the classes that walked to the DQ. When I told my two brothers that Lee had died my youngest brother, Emmett Dougherty who was a freshmen when Lee was a senior, said “he was my detention buddy my freshman year”. I said I know, Lee would tell me the detention stories all the time. They were Hilarious! As a teacher at Central, I had the pleasure of working with Lee. Boy talk about caving in to peer pressure. Do you know how hard it is to say no to a class that wants to go to the DQ and adds at the end of the request, “Mr. LaBreche takes us”. He was hard to keep up with! He will be greatly missed!


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