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Victoria leaders mourn former city manager

By BY JESSICA PRIEST - JPRIEST@VICAD.COM
Jan. 20, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 20, 2013 at 7:21 p.m.

John F. Lee

To remember

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Trinity Episcopal School or donor's choice.

To comfort the family, visit the Colonial Funeral Home website.

City leaders past and present mourned the loss Sunday of a man they say helped propel Victoria into this century.

John Frederick Lee Jr., who served as Victoria city manager for almost 21 years, three times the average length of tenure for that position, died Tuesday.

He was 93.

Mayor Will Armstrong recalled how Lee rolled up his sleeves for the job shortly after the Foster Field Air Base closed in the late 1950s. The base was used as a training ground for pilots fighting in the Korean War, and some 5,000 people relocated after it was shuttered.

"We were in the worst economic times that I've ever witnessed in Victoria, worse than when oil fell to $10 a barrel," said Armstrong, who worked with Lee as a city council member from 1973 to 1979.

Lee corrected property value disparities on the tax roll to prevent raising the rate for everyone to help maintain crucial services, such as the fire and police departments, Armstrong said.

"That was very controversial, but we worked on it," Armstrong said. "It saved us by getting everyone to pay their fair share."

Ushering Victoria away from its residential, gravel streets reminiscent of the Dust Bowl also was one of Lee's crowning achievements, said Denny Arnold.

Arnold, also a former Victoria city manager, counted Lee as a mentor, especially for the road project. He said the project required state assistance as well as some funds from residents, who were asked to pay for the improved street nearest them - either in full or in installments.

"It sounds kind of primitive now, but he knew that that was a great thing to do," Arnold said.

Lee's colleagues also lauded his intelligence and people skills, noting he was never one to accept praise for his accomplishments.

"He cared about his employees. ... He was a very unselfish man. If you tried to give him a compliment, he'd play it down and change the subject," Arnold said.

James Stewart, former Victoria Public Library director, appreciated how accessible Lee made himself to his department heads without micromanaging them.

"He didn't have a palace guard that filtered things to him," Stewart said. "He was very quick to understand a project, and he was quick to give you an answer on it as well."

Stewart said that attitude helped him and his staff apply for a $91,000 grant to create the first automated circulation system with Victoria College and the University of Houston-Victoria.

That's why books are checked out with a scanning wand now and residents are alerted their books are due back soon, Stewart said.

"You probably can't even imagine what it was like before then," Stewart said, chuckling. "You had no ideas where your books were, and it was pretty labor intensive."

Lee's wife, Lucy, said he took some work home with him. She remembered how residents would call their house because someone hadn't collected their garbage that day.

"And he would go and pick it up. That was just the kind of stuff he did," Lucy Lee said.

She said the pair spent their retirement traveling across the U.S., Canada and Mexico in an RV but only for two weeks. She said that's because it wasn't long before he missed the Crossroads.

Thumbing through family scrapbooks and collecting plaques hung on the walls, she said his first concern was always for other people.

She said she'll miss her partner, whom she's done everything with for the past 48 years.

"We never spent a night away from each other," Lucy Lee said of how the two would use each other sort of as a soundboard to work out the day's problems. "We'd get up at 3 o'clock in the morning and eat sardines. ... And I'd just listen. That's what he wanted."

Former mayor Kemper Williams Jr. said a lot of the facilities, such as City Hall, the county courthouse and fire stations standing today were built under Lee's direction.

"He was a good man who served this community very well, and I will always be happy to have worked with him," Williams said.

"We're all going to miss him," Lucy Lee added.

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