The life story of Sambonn Lek, a famed Washington, DC bartender and philanthropist, provides an inspirational change of pace from our usual reports here of injustice and hardship.
Unrelenting bad news can be discouraging. "Sam," as my longtime friend is known, has made a career of dispensing indoor sunshine.
After arriving in the United States in 1974 as a refugee from Cambodia, he became one of the best-known, liked, and respected professionals in Washington's hospitality industry. His warmth and flair have long attracted a powerful clientele from business, government, and the media.
Beyond that, he has served as the tireless founder, fund-raiser and hands-on goods and services implementer for Sam's Relief Inc., a charity helping Cambodians following the genocide during the 1970s.
He made news this week within the Beltway by moving to a new locale, the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel, following nearly 40 years presiding at the Mayflower-Renaissance Hotel. That work was primarily at its now-closed Town and Country Bar, a wood-panelled emporium that catered to the hotel's elite clientele in the heart of the city's business district on Connecticut Avenue.
Lek received many awards at the Mayflower. Washingtonian Magazine named him as the city's "best bartender," for example. The worldwide Marriott chain, owners of the Mayflower, once named him as employee of the year with CEO William Marriott bestowing the prize.
But Lek's proudest accomplishments, as he told Washington Post profile writer Tim Carman last summer, are personal, such as the charity he founded to provide “education and educational resources to the impoverished children of Cambodia.”
The 2005 photo at left shows him commemorating the donor of 10 tons of rice the charity distributed that year as part of his relief work on his annual trip to Cambodia. The photo at right shows him with students at a new school funded by United States donors.
"To say that Sambonn Lek had a good run at the Mayflower would be like saying Harry Potter books sell well with children," Carman wrote last summer. "He loved magic tricks. He knew your favourite drink, or even the last one you had when you were in. It’s time to raise a toast to the man who fixed so many cocktails for toasting."
Lek wrote friends and Sam's Relief donors on the occasion of his retirement last August:
When turning points occur in a person’s life, it is only natural to reflect on all the events that have brought them to that moment. Today, as I look back, I think about people like you who have been with me throughout my journey.
I first came to the United States in 1974, just a year and a half before the communist takeover of Cambodia. I had $300 in my pocket, my beautiful wife Nara Sok Lek at my side, and a fervent belief in the American dream in my heart. My first job was as a dishwasher at Blackie’s House of Beef and Golden Ox Restaurant on L Street in Washington, DC. I was grateful for the opportunity to work hard.
And doors continued to open. The U.S. government offered Cambodian refugees scholarships for hotel and motel schools in Washington, DC. I took this offer and successfully graduated in 1976. I attended Montgomery College and studied accounting and computer science.
While I am very proud of those achievements, I am most proud of the accomplishments in which I am not given awards. My daughter Bonnary Lek graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in May 2002 with a business degree in marketing. My son Benjamin Sambonn Lek graduated from Franklin Pierce University with a degree in journalism. I volunteered to help deliver food to elderly people through churches in the Washington, DC area. I mentored students at Gaithersburg Middle School, performing magic tricks -- the very tricks that I perform for my valued guests behind the Mayflower Hotel bar.
Finally, among the most dear to my heart, is the work behind the Sam Relief, Inc., which we founded in 1999. So far, we have built 27 schools, 345 wells, 100 tons of rice to Angkor Children Hospital at Siem Reap and provided University scholarships all for needy children in Cambodia.
Tune in Friday to learn more about what he has observed for nearly four decades in the nation's capital -- and learn why he came back.
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Editor's Note: The photo at right is part of Sambonn Lek's visual scrapbook documenting for donors how their money is spent for relief projects.
Washington Post, Mayflower bartender Sambonn Lek to leave U.S., Tim Carman, July 12, 2012. For his final trick, Sambonn Lek will disappear from the Mayflower. Last year, bartender Sambonn Lek said goodbye to the Town & Country Lounge, where he had calmed more frayed nerves than a therapy dog, before the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel closed and replaced the outdated bar. On Friday, the Cambodian native will say goodbye to the Mayflower — and to the United States, where he has, for more than 35 years, mixed drinks for some of his adopted country’s most powerful residents. “God sent me to the United States to serve a purpose and care for my first, beloved home of Cambodia,” Lek wrote in a farewell note that he sent Wednesday to friends, relatives and longtime Mayflower patrons. “Now, He takes me back to where I belong so that I can take the next pivotal step in my journey,” Lek continued. “I am both excited and sad to inform you that I am returning to Cambodia and leaving the Washington, D.C., area, and the Mayflower, my home for the past 36 years.”
Washington Post, For many, Town & Country Lounge's last call hard to swallow, J. Freedom duLac, Jan. 14, 2011. As the Mayflower hotel's bar Town and Country closes, customers have to say goodbye to Sam Lek, a bartender that has served the politicians, lobbyists and journalists faithfully for 35 years. On Saturday night, Sambonn Lek, head bartender at the legendary Town & Country Lounge, where he's worked since Gerald Ford was president, will don his white shirt, red tie and black vest, stand behind the bar, and make some of the best sidecars around, along with even better small talk.