TORONTO – When Lee Ballantyne scrawled a few words on a restaurant napkin, he was doing little more than paying tribute to his high school sweetheart while trying to salve his own grief at her loss.
But Ballantyne’s son Jason said his father’s decision to honour a new generation of lovers has resonated all over the world, taking him from anonymous Good Samaritan to global inspiration.
Romantics and cynics alike have helped spread the tale of a grieving widower who felt compelled to buy dinner for an unknown young couple who reminded him of happy days with his late wife, who had died just a week before after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.
Jason Ballantyne said the international reaction to the story has been overwhelming in one sense, but not surprising in another. The story of his parents’ marriage, he said, speaks to profound emotions that are nearly universal.
“It cuts across cultures because it’s a story about two people who shared a very strong bond and a man dealing with that loss reaches out to somebody in the time of his grief,” Ballantyne said in a telephone interview from Barrie, Ont.
“That’s the type of person my dad is.”
Lee Ballantyne, former editor of the Belleville Intelligencer and current columnist for the Barrie Advance, went out to dinner on Jan. 7, barely a week after his wife Carol’s death.
The melancholy meal became a more pleasant experience for Ballantyne as he watched a young couple enjoying dinner together across the room from where he sat.
The happy pair prompted him to reach out in a way that even he had not planned.
In what he described as a spontaneous gesture, Ballantyne seized a napkin and dashed off a quick note to the unknown pair:
“You don’t know me but my beautiful wife of 43 years died last week. Tonight I dined alone for the first time. You remind me of us many years ago. Please allow me to buy your dinner. Enjoy! It will put a smile on Carol’s face and make me happy . . . for now. Happy New Year! Lee B. Pay it forward.”
A waiter at the restaurant photographed the note and posted it online. Within hours, Ballantyne’s words and generosity were making an impact around the world.
In a column written about the reaction, Ballantyne said his note was reposted to various social networks and had garnered hundreds of thousands of views by the end of the week.
Traditional media soon followed suit, with the U.K.’s Daily Mail writing a story and posting pictures of the Ballantynes and their children. News outlets in countries as far afield as Australia, Germany and Croatia also ran articles.
What the note did not capture, Jason Ballantyne said, was the long-standing bond between his parents.
Lee and Carol Ballantyne met when they were still teenagers in the northern Ontario mining town of Kirkland Lake, he said. They came together at a community dance after Lee had been rejected by Carol’s best friend.
“(Mom) went home that night, and her sisters have confirmed this, that she said, ‘I just danced with the man I’m going to marry,’” Jason Ballantyne said.
The relationship, which Jason Ballantyne said went through typical ups and downs, grew closer in the past five years as Carol struggled with lupus, cancer and other medical conditions that left her unable to eat solid food for nearly two years.
Her death has left a void for his father, Jason said, adding the gesture in the restaurant was motivated by a profound sense of identity with the couple across the way.
“He said it hurts not having Mom there with him,” Jason said. “That was why it was so powerful at that meal because it hit him that, ‘I’m never going to have dinner with my wife again.’”
Days after the note became public, social media is still rife with posts about Lee Ballantyne, his grief and his good deed.
Many took inspiration from his actions, such as the Twitter user who reflected on following in his footsteps.
“Saw this lovely story today and it made me think — have you done anything nice for a stranger lately?”
Others were more direct in their praise: “This man proudly holds the flame of humanity aloft. Nicely done.”
Not all reaction was so positive, however. One Intelligencer columnist felt compelled to write about what he described as “Internet trolls” who cast aspersions on Ballantyne and even questioned the authenticity of the napkin note.
“…The Internet, as it is wont to do, began to eat its own,” wrote Ballantyne’s personal friend Chris Malette. “There are heartless trolls who skewered the note, the gesture and even Lee. But, those morons are legion in the faceless world of the Internet.”
But Lee Ballantyne himself was among the first to shrug off the handful of negative comments.
While acknowledging their existence in his column, he said they weigh lightly in the balance compared to the outpouring of support and appreciation he’s received.
“I didn’t write the note and pay the tab to achieve my 15 minutes of fame. I did it to put a smile on someone’s face and to give myself a badly needed feel-good moment,” he wrote.
“The hundreds of comments since then have, I confess, warmed my heart.”
One particularly meaningful interaction came when the couple who inspired the gesture reached out to thank him.
Ballantyne declined to name them, but said his contact with them holds promise of bringing the entire interaction full circle.
“I appreciated the effort they made to find me and thank me. I hope we will have dinner together one day.”