Three Things I Learned about Lee

Feb 8 '10


As Henry mentioned, Lee’s memorial service was on Friday. I thought I would share a few stories about Lee that I had not heard.

* When Lee was 9 years old — this was 1954 — he set about collecting autographs. He wrote letters to famous people asking for their autograph and included a self-addressed stamped envelope. So he got autographs. Joe DiMaggio. Dwight Eisenhower. Richard Nixon. And a letter, although not an autograph (as I understand it), from the Queen of England. He apparently got H.L. Mencken’s as well (see the epigraph for the blog). All 300 or so autographs are in a scrapbook that Lee kept his entire life.

* Lee was not one to put on airs, and his manner of dress reflected this. It was never inappropriate or sloppy, but certainly nothing you’d mistake for a page from GQ. There was one exception to this, however: Lee’s attire as a cyclist. I’ve already noted his hot pink spandex ensemble. But at the service, one of Lee’s cycling friends described how much further his sartorial persnickitiness went. Lee was a veritable dandy. His love of appearances began with the bicycles themselves. Lee was described as regularly trolling e-Bay, buying bikes that simply looked good, even if they weren’t always the best bike for his frame. And then there were the clothes one wore when riding. Lee believed that cyclists’ shoes, gloves, and helmet must match. See the photo above. Finally, there was his bike pump. He found a bump in the same shade of blue as his favorite Bianchi. All this from a guy that I never saw in a sportcoat or suit — not once. But put him on a bicycle, and he’s suddenly Liberace.

* Eric Lawrence and I previously discussed Lee’s finicky editing. I suppose, then, that I should have been prepared for stories about how Lee’s specific preferences and tastes extended into other domains. I will share this one story, from a former colleague at Texas Tech. In those days, the paperboy delivered the paper to your house and then stopped by every so often to collect money. One day he came to Lee’s house. Lee told him that he could find his money under the car in the driveway. The paperboy asked him why the money was there. Lee said that as soon as the paperboy would stop throwing the paper under his car, he would stop putting the money there.

And there was this rueful bit of self-deprecation from my GW colleague Chris Deering. In his eulogy, Chris talked about interviewing Lee as an outside candidate for the chair of our department:

bq. In 1990, Jeff Henig and I were part of a committee to find a new chair for the political science department. During the interview, someone asked Lee why he wanted to walk away from his position as Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Arizona.

bq. His response was telling, and it wasn’t about basketball: “I have to make a choice between moving up and moving down the administrative ladder,” he said. To Lee the answer was obvious: more time for political science, more time for recruiting and mentoring, more time to do the things he loved.

bq. Jeff and I were brilliant of course; we knew right away that Lee was our guy. He had the disciplinary knowledge to lead recruitment, the personality to foster collegiality, and the kindness to mentor new and existing colleagues. Alas, our brilliance wasn’t completely unalloyed. We actually offered the job to someone else first.

Thankfully this person declined. And speaking of what Lee loved, Chris also offered this moving conclusion:

bq. Lee often said that he loved three things. He loved Carol. He loved his cats. And he loved political science. He was fond of a quip about the South Dakota farmer, emblematic of the reserved and modest Midwesterner, who loved his wife so much he almost told her.

bq. As a good South Dakotan, Lee didn’t cotton much to sentimentality, self-aggrandizement, or over seriousness. All this left a lot of us in the position of loving him so much…we almost told him.