IT’S NOT HARD to identify just what it was about Lionel “Lee” Cabana that made me feel comfortable around him, never hesitating to approach him with a question, a request for a comment or clarification about something related to education.

Cabana, a longtime teacher and former chairman of the Waterville Board of Education, was knowledgeable, kind, accessible and welcoming.

I could call his house day or night and never worry I’d be intruding, as he and his wife, Judy, were always at the ready to help with whatever I needed.

If it was a photo from an old yearbook for a story I was writing, I knew the Cabanas were the ones to approach, as they kept all the yearbooks from Waterville Senior High School. Lee was yearbook adviser for 36 years, and they both had incredible memories for students who had passed through Waterville schools. If I was on deadline and needed Lee to clarify something or comment on a school budget or other matter, he willingly obliged.

He was upbeat and friendly and, as the priest who celebrated his Mass of Christian Burial Thursday said, truly loved people.

Cabana died a week ago at 81, leaving in his wake a flood of saddened former students, fellow teachers, administrators, school board members and others who loved him, especially his family.

That love was evident in the more than 300 people who turned out for the Mass at Notre Dame Catholic Church on Silver Street to celebrate Cabana’s life and work.

“Without love, the world that we live in would be a very bleak place,” the Rev. Matthew Gregory said.

What is important, he said, is not doing big or great things, but doing small things with great love, such as welcoming a stranger or giving water to one who is thirsty.

It is a simple concept, but one that bears noting, particularly in the case of Lee Cabana. As School Superintendent Eric Haley said during the celebration, Cabana was not a star quarterback or athlete or great golfer, but he was an all-star human being. He was strong, a steady hand at the helm, a confidante, anchor and rock in the middle of the stream.

“What is really special about Lee, he was that way both professionally and personally,” Haley said.

School board member Joan Phillips-Sandy, who worked with Cabana many years and was present for his Mass Thursday, described him as an outstanding educator and a lifelong learner.

“One of the nicest, wisest, all ’round best people I’ve ever known,” she said. “I loved him dearly and will miss him very much.”

I remember interviewing Cabana in December 2014 when he was honored at the high school for more than 52 years of service to schools. He had just retired as chairman of the Board of Education after 17 years, 16 as chairman. He had been a teacher 35 years and instructed general business courses at the high school before retiring in 1995.

“It’s just been a good life,” Cabana told me. “I’m very pleased I’ve been able to serve the city the number of years I’ve been able to. It’s a pleasure. I love Waterville. It’s special to me. There are a lot of good kids in this town — a lot of good kids. We’re very lucky.”

In typical Cabana fashion, he was thankful for the opportunity to serve students, not expecting thanks himself. It was that selflessness and genuine devotion to others that made him special. He was never arrogant and did not complain, even when his health deteriorated. He underwent chemotherapy for multiple myeloma, suffered from back issues and had to use a transfer chair which is much like a wheelchair, but it was lightweight and easy for Judy to move in and out of their car. Like her husband, she also was dedicated, traveling everywhere with him and attending all the meetings he attended. She was knowledgeable about school issues and could discuss matters related to education nearly as well as he. Where he was, you could expect to see Judy also.

Lee knew how lucky he was to have her, telling me three years ago with his inimitable sense of humor that when they took him to the hospital one time he was “knocking on the grim reaper’s door.”

“Lucky I’ve got a darned good keeper here,” he said, referring to Judy. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here, I’m sure.”

That year, 2014, the schools honored Lee with the Outstanding Education Award, the highest award given by the school board. He deserved the accolade for many reasons, and not just because he gave more than a half century of his life to Waterville schools. Gregory described most eloquently at the funeral Mass the more subtle, but greater gift that Cabana gave — that of love.

“Real love requires hard work,” he said. “It requires patience and many times, it goes unseen, unrecognized by the masses and the majority.”

Well, it has not gone unseen or unrecognized by us, Lee, and we won’t soon forget the love you spread during your lifetime and beyond.

Thank you, Godspeed and good night.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 29 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.