WEST OAK LANE >> Imagine someone who has hitch hiked across the country and abroad, traveled to five continents, retired from a civil service job and even occasionally garners standing ovations when crooning a jazz song.
That is exactly what Lee J. Harold, of West Oak Lane, has done.
After living in California and abroad, Harold came back to Northwest Philadelphia, going through many transitions.
The West Philadelphia native left the city when he was 22. He drove down the old Route 66 to Los Angelos where he found the adage about those with “plastic paper and star in their eyes” was true. After a short stint, he decided to go north to make his home in Berkley.
“I worked at the University of California,” Harold said. “My co-worker was from Texas and married a woman from Holland, so that’s how I wound up living in Holland for seven years.”
With no car by then, Harold would often hitchhike wherever he wanted to go. From California, he had hitchhiked back to Philadelphia or further north to Harlem in New York City. Over in Europe, he hitchhiked or rode the Icelandic Airlines to Luxemburg and many locations. He held all types of jobs, including even showing off his singing voice, specializing in jazz.
“I was just performing at La Rose jazz club in Germantown recently,” Harold said. “I was telling someone that I have been through five continents, including living in California a few times in between.”
Once when he and his wife, Letfa, had a party, he use placards with each one having one of the countries he had traveled to either solo or with his wife. The placards included Iceland, Holland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Ghana, Surinam, Italy, France, many Caribbean islands and Canada. He also traveled to Hawaii just after it became a state.
Through his journeys, he has met many fascinating people. Joann Childs Ososwaja, owner of the Esteem Guest House in Ghana and author of “Take Me Home to Afrika,” is among them. Childs came to visit the Harolds at their West Oak Lane home this past winter. The couple has also stayed at her residence in Ghana. Childs used to live in the area and worked as a registered nurse before deciding to relocate to West Africa.
“My wife Letfa has been to Ghana maybe three or four times,” Harold said. “She moved there to open a bed and breakfast. We meet so many people with interesting stories. She had double hip surgery and then decided to move to Africa. She had never been to Africa. We went to her farewell party, and then we visited her there.”
Harold said he admired her spunk because he, too, has taken risks like that. In fact, he said meeting his wife was providential. At the time, he was between jobs, and she owned a home. He is quick to note that they likely would have gotten together if they met under other circumstances, yet the relationship proved to be a win-win for both. He said along the way, he learned the basics of many trades, so he fixed up her home and got a job nearby. She had always wanted to travel, so she was able to do so.
“The reaction people have when they come to our home is, ‘Wow,’” Harold said.
He said he is proud of the many artifacts from around the world that play a key role in the interior sign. There is also the California touch from his years on the West Coast. Now that Harold is retired, he has more time to devote to his West Oak Lane home.
“This house is reflective of our travels,” Harold said. “I worked at Einstein hospital for many years. During that time, we continued to travel. But I did put my music on the back burner. I put all the time I spent in musical theater with the Oakland Ensemble Company to rest. But now I am retired; I get a chance to return to that.”
Harold’s music taste is as eclectic as his home and travels. He is often compared to a combination of Lou Rawls, Al Jarreau and Johnnie Mathis.
“I actually was the opening act for Mathis when I was in California,” Harold said. “Now I am just happy to either perform at La Rose on Monday nights or at shows at the Community Education Center in West Philadelphia. This is the [topping] for a colorful life.”