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Finally, a burial for 'a good soul'; When a teenager died in a river accident, a family clash prevented a traditional funeral and delayed rites. Now his mother has found some peace, and his brother carries on.

BYLINE: Mary Lynn Smith; Staff Writer - July 15, 2000, Saturday

While growing up in St. Paul, John Lee was a Hmong teenager who struggled with the clash of two cultures. And when he died last month, he fell victim to a family clash that left his body stranded at the morgue for three weeks.

He was finally buried this week, though not with the Hmong ritual his mother would have preferred. Today his teachers and friends will hold a picnic from noon to 4 p.m. in Maplewood's Keller Regional Park to celebrate a young life that, while troubled at times, they saw as good and promising.

"He touched everyone here," said Lisa Eicher, a social worker at St. Paul's Cleveland Middle School, where Lee had completed eighth grade. "Everyone liked Johnny Lee. He was just something else. A good soul. He was going to make something of himself."

He also illustrated the struggles of some Hmong teens who desperately want to fit in while trying to be true to their native culture, said Jeff Theune, Lee's social studies teacher. Theune featured Lee in his master's thesis, which he hopes to use as the basis for a performance by the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. "John Lee's spirit will live on in that play," he said.

Lee, 14, who had planned to attend Como Park High School this fall, died June 22 after jumping off a cliff and trying to swim across the St. Croix River near St. Croix Falls, Wis. He had been with friends at Wisconsin's Interstate State Park.

Earlier this week, the National Park Service banned swimming and cliff jumping in that section of the St. Croix because of Lee's death. It was already illegal on the Minnesota side, but there was no similar restriction on the Wisconsin side.

The family gathered immediately after Lee's death, and funeral plans were made. Choua Xiong's last wish for her son was to guide his soul to the afterlife with a traditional burial service.

For that to happen, Kao Lee _ John's father and Xiong's ex-husband _ had to perform a ceremony with clan elders and pay homage to the family's ancestors. But Kao Lee refused, according to family members; why isn't entirely certain, and he could not be reached for comment at his home in Eau Claire, Wis.

What is clear is that under the patriarchal Hmong social structure, John Lee couldn't receive a traditional funeral without his father's approval. And his distraught mother couldn't stand to bury her son without a service.

"We live in the projects. Life here can be miserable," said Lee's 17-year-old brother Josh, referring to their public housing complex. "The Hmong ceremony would lead [John] to the good way and happiness. And that's what my mom always wanted for him."

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Life struggles

  The Lees' parents were divorced more than a decade ago and have since taken new spouses. Three of the couple's four children live with their mother in St. Paul and have had little contact with their father. One son lives with his father.

"We've grown up the hard way," Josh Lee said. "We're poor . . . and we don't always have the same support like other kids. . . . And me and John had to grow up without a father. . . . We felt alone. We were the only two people who would say goodnight to one another. He believed in me and I believed in him."

When Josh Lee was sent to live with his father for a brief time, he said, it left a void in his brother's life. "He ran with the TMC [gang], because there was no one else there for him," Josh Lee said.

Teachers knew that John Lee missed school and had gang-related troubles. But they saw potential and enrolled him in Focus on Success, a program for at-risk students. He attended school more often, became a B student and received the school's peer mediator award. He also became one of the school's most skilled soccer players.

"He excelled," said Amy Bjorklund, a social worker who headed the program. "He just needed a little attention and structure in his life."

  John Lee often walked into her room with a tough-guy strut and a smirk. Even so, she said, "He was so endearing . . . I adored this kid. . . . He was a very bright kid with so much potential."

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Moving on

Josh Lee also was convinced of that.

"I know the mistakes I've made," he said this week. "I would say [to John], 'Look at me, I'm struggling.' I couldn't go to my eighth-grade graduation ceremony because I got into a fight. I regret that now. . . . I told him, 'You actually have some heart to succeed.' "

When it became clear that they weren't going to be able to provide John Lee with a traditional Hmong service, family members arranged for a 24-hour vigil Wednesday at the Hmong Funeral Home and a Christian burial Thursday at Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul.

  Xiong's heart aches over the loss, Josh Lee said, but she is satisfied that her son's soul can move on. "It's finally done," he said.

And Josh also will move on. "I'm going to make his dreams come true. I'm going to go to school and get a good life. I'm going to make my mom happy," he vowed. "I'm going to make things happen for him.".

To contact Mary Lynn Smith, call 651-298-1550 or send an e-mail to mlsmith@startribune.com.

How you can help:

Memorial fund

The John Lee Memorial Fund to help defray funeral expenses has been established.

- Where: Liberty State Bank, 176 Snelling Av. N. in St. Paul.

- More information: For more information, call 651-646-8681.