By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 29, 2011
After 25 years of leading the youth basketball program at Corpus Christi Church, Lee Buechele has retired his jersey.
The Stone Mountain parish held a reception Aug. 27 to honor Buechele’s contribution to the parish and community, an event that brought together current players and alumni of the various programs he led in his years of service.
To any parishioner, “Buechele” is a household name. Known for inspiring youth, whether Catholic or not, he has left an indelible mark on many kids, teens and adults who have participated in any of the various activities he has helped organize or lead.
Amu Saaka, a 23-year-old graduate of Furman University and parishioner at Corpus Christi, played basketball for nearly four years under Buechele’s leadership. Last month, Saaka left for the Netherlands to play professional basketball. He said his experience playing at Corpus Christi and working with Buechele had a great impact on him.
“Stemming from here, my love for basketball grew,” he said. “I played with a lot of great players here. … I can’t thank him enough for inspiring me and giving me an opportunity.”
Claretian Father Greg Kenny, pastor emeritus at Corpus Christi, nominated Buechele for the Archbishop John F. Donoghue Award, which he won in 2006 for his decades of service. The award, given by Catholic Charities Atlanta, honored him for outstanding service to youth.
“Lee Buechele has been a faithful and hardworking volunteer ever since 1986 when he took over the Youth Basketball Program at Corpus Christi,” wrote Father Kenny in his letter of nomination. “At that time, Corpus Christi was a typical white middle to upper class parish. Lee has continued to volunteer and to adapt the programs of the parish to the needs of a changing economic and demographic base, always serving the church and the community in creative ways that met new challenges.”
The award presentation in 2006 credited him with beginning one of the two community sports outreach programs for young people in DeKalb County that emphasized teamwork, sportsmanship and giving every player a chance to play. The program was open to any child and focused on giving refugee and immigrant children a chance to play and to be accepted in a new country.
In addition to the youth basketball program, Buechele also worked with Claretian Father Jim Curran at Corpus Christi to create a summer youth program for rising eighth- through tenth-graders called “Swarm,” offering academics, skill training, competition, life skills and community service in a fun atmosphere. He also ran basketball, soccer, academic achievement and summer day camps.
“Like all the programs in which Lee is involved, this program relies on his ability to secure non-parish funds so as not to further burden our limited resources,” Father Kenny said about “Swarm.”
“He relies on free-will offerings, runs a recycling program for the parish, and has received grants for his programs,” Father Kenny said.
Buechele, who retired from the U.S. Army, has earned recognition outside of the parish also, including a nomination in 1995 for the TV Channel 5 Heart for Youth award. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., a master’s degree from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and a master’s in business administration from Georgia State University.
Buechele will keep busy in his second retirement. Besides an occasional visit to Corpus Christi basketball games, Buechele plans to continue umpiring amateur baseball and his professional acting, another interest fostered by participating in theater productions at Corpus Christi and other parishes.
The reception gave current and former participants of Buechele’s programs an opportunity to thank him for his hard work and support in providing a safe environment for kids to learn and play. Alumni had their picture taken with Buechele while many reminisced about the times they had playing basketball in the gym.
William Tarver was recruited by Buechele to help the program as a volunteer coach. Tarver, who is not a parishioner at Corpus Christi, saw the potential of the program and sent his three sons to the church to play basketball. Now he will help lead the program.
“I had my sons play in this league because I saw the benefit of the program and its lessons in teamwork,” Tarver said. “Lee recruited me as a volunteer coach and I just got more and more involved.”
For Buechele, the reception was a time of memories and reflection, but also a chance to see the fruits of his labor.
“It was an honor and a challenge to be asked to lead it for so many years,” Buechele said. “I leave with mixed emotions. I will miss the work, but it’s the right time, and in William Tarver and Paul Dunn we have the right leaders in place to go forward.”
“Corpus Christi has been ‘My Church, My Home, My Family’ since I came here in 1986,” he added, quoting a phrase that is a parish motto. “I loved being able to coach and interact with young people as part of a sports program at my church.”