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Obituary for E. Desmond Lee: Philanthropist, arts patron

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2010 - As a highly successful businessman and philanthropist who gave away something on the order of a million dollars a year, E. Desmond "Des" Lee was the target of lots of flattery. He would have none of it.

Mr. Lee used to tell people he was "just a guy" and not all that smart at that. "My mother and father were both Phi Beta Kappas," he told a Post-Dispatch interviewer. "And I flunked kindergarten."

"You can't flunk kindergarten," the interviewer shot back.

"They made me take it over," Lee insisted. "Very ordinary intellect."

But an extraordinary life. E. Desmond Lee died Tuesday at St. John's Mercy Medical Center after suffering a stroke the previous week. He was 92. A service for Mr. Lee will be held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Ladue Chapel, 9450 Clayton Road, Ladue.

Mr. Lee spent half his life building a highly successful business, the Lee-Rowan Co., and the rest of it giving his money away to a variety of St. Louis charitable causes. Some were well established such as the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and some he invented from whole cloth such as the Des Lee Collaborative Vision, the joint program he founded with three of St. Louis' major universities.

On the day of his death, middle and high school students were gathered at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis for the Des Lee Big Band Jazz Festival. That was just one of dozens of programs spawned from the collaborative that sent dozens of endowed professors into underserved communities.

"When his death was announced at the concert, the kids were told to play extra loud for Des," said Steffanie Rockette, director of the collaborative.

Mr. Lee's generosity drew a great deal of attention. In 1999, Worth magazine listed him among the nation's 100 most generous Americans, the only area resident to make the list. At that time, his charitable giving over his lifetime was listed at $38 million. By this year it had risen to more than $70 million.

Though Lee was not a publicity seeker, he did not turn away reporters. And he was a terrific interview -- salty, funny and uncommonly frank.

Though he has lavished millions on the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Lee once joked that he didn't know a harmonica from a flute. (He played the drums as a youth.)

Earlier today SLSO President and Executive Director Fred Bronstein issued a statement that said, "Anyone who knew E. Desmond Lee was aware that his love for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra was boundless. His support was tremendous, not just in treasure but in spirit. There was no better cheerleader for this organization. ... Of course, beyond the SLSO, Des was a force in Saint Louis; his impact will be felt for years to come.

"As a member of our family, Des will be sorely missed. Our hearts go out to Mary Ann and their family."

When asked by the Post-Dispatch in 2003 if he thought wealthy St. Louisans were penny pinchers, he responded, "There's no question about it. When I look at the number of wealthy people you put in the paper and see how many of them really give anything, it's absolutely amazing.

And he was prescient: "The selfishness of corporate executives that are part of the modern scene right now is repulsive to me," he said in that same interview seven years ago. "Corporate executives are using every method in the world to just milk the stockholders. And that is going to affect the free-enterprise system of our great nation, not only nationally but internationally, and we've got to find a way to curtail that."

Mr. Lee was born on Aug. 6, 1917 in Sikeston, Mo. to Edgar and Bennetta Lee. He spent most of his childhood in Columbia, Mo. where his father struggled as a college president during the depression to keep the doors open at Christian College, a girl's school in Columbia. It's still open and now known as Columbia College.

His father's work gave young Des an appreciation for education and the magic it could work on young people's lives, including his own.

"Des' greatest passion was education," Rockette said. "It takes an education to go from bad to better from better to great and he knew that."

Mr. Lee attended Washington University on a scholarship. He captained the university's basketball team and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from what is now the John M. Olin School of Business. He enlisted in the Army during World War II and was put in command of a group of African-Americans, an assignment that he said changed his outlook.

"When I got that assignment, it was the most disappointing morning I ever had," Mr. Lee recalled in a 2003 interview. "I thought I wasn't ready for that. It turned out to be probably the greatest experience in my life. I witnessed the most tremendous discrimination you could possibly imagine (in the U.S.). We had the same trouble in North Africa. Once you're exposed to that kind of discrimination, you're conscious of it" the rest of your life.

Before going off to war, Mr. Lee joined with his father, college classmate Jim Rowan and Jim's father, John, to found Lee-Rowan Co. with $2,500 in seed money. The manufacturing company's first product was a patented metal trouser creaser and hanger that the company sold to department stores. The company struggled for many years and Mr. Lee recalled having "to work his ass off" to make it successful. The business found its footing when it began producing wire-shelving. Mr. Lee sold the business in 1993 for a reported $75 million, then began giving a whole lot of the proceeds away.

Lee took a great deal of joy in his philanthropy -- though he thought that word was a little too high-falutin. Mr. Lee eschewed the trappings of wealth, saying at one time he was driving an Oldsmobile though a Cadillac would probably have suited him better. "I don't like that damn name," he told a reporter.

His long-time assistant, Carole Ritter, said he was insatiably curious when it came to the people he met and was trying to help.

"If he sat next to you, get ready to have your brain picked dry," Ritter said.

He had an odd way of starting a conversation sometimes. Ritter said he opened their initial interview 25 years ago with this question: "How old are you?" Even then, that was an HR no-no. Didn't matter.

To Rockette, whom he met 11 years ago, he said: "Howdy do, it's so nice to meet a tall girl. How the hell are you?"

Mr. Lee's son, Gary, said his dad came from the old school where relationships were built on trust.

"He would write deals out on his hand with a pen and then ask the person he was negotiating with to take the pen and put a check next to it. My dad had appreciation for lawyers. But if some one gave his word that was good enough for him."

Mr. Lee served on the boards of the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, United Way of Greater St. Louis, the St. Louis Science Center, the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri Historical Society, Variety the Children's Charity of St. Louis, St. Louis Art Museum and Ranken Technical College. He also funded scholarships at a number of local universities including Washingtion University, Webster University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Mr. Lee is survived by his wife, Mary Ann Lee; his children Gary Lee (Marilyn), of St. Louis; Christy Pope (Bill) of Aspen, Colo.; and Gayle Lee, of Wickenburg, Ariz; grandchildren David Lee, a professional basketball player with the New York Knicks of the NBA; Elizabeth Johnson (David) of Greensboro, N.C.; Desmond Duggan of Aspen, Colo.; Lyrica Marquez of Nashville, Tenn; and two great grandchildren. He is also survived by his stepchildren Andrew C. Taylor (Barbara) and Jo Ann Taylor Kindle (Tom), and his step-grandchildren Christine Taylor Broughton (Lee), Patricia Taylor, Carolyn Kindle and Alison Kindle, all of St. Louis, and Kelly Taylor of Delray, Fla. Mr. Lee's first wife, Margery Stauffer, passed away in 1977.

Funeral services are pending. The family requests contributions to one of Mr. Lee's favorite charities. There are many from which to choose.

Editor's Note: Mr. Lee was also a contributor to the St. Louis Beacon.

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