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May 9, 2008

An Appropriate Memorial

John W. Ashbury

Wednesday evening was special in Frederick in more than the usual ways. The suspension bridge in the Carroll Creek Linear Park was re-dedicated to the memory of William O. Lee, Jr. It was a time to remember the man who gave so very much to the community he called home.


The accolades continue to pour in, even four years after his death from lung cancer. For Bill Lee, as those who didn’t feel comfortable enough to call him “Sonny,” was a man of accomplishments, accomplishments which will be a beacon for those still to come, a goal to shoot for, never being sure one has done enough to match his love for Frederick.


It was on the 80th anniversary of his birth that the City of Frederick decided to once again remind all that here was a man to be emulated, a quiet force who rose to the occasion, whether it be to mentor a child as teacher, principal, or just plain friend.


William Osborn Lee, Jr., was born on West All Saints Street on May 7, 1928. When Dr. Ulysses Grant Bourne, Sr., arrived to assist in the delivery, Bill’s grandmother immediately berated the good doctor for failing to arrive sooner. Seems that Dr. Bourne was out campaigning for a seat in the House of Delegates, and no one was sure where he was when Bill’s mother went into labor.


For the next 75 years, Bill Lee gave himself to Frederick, leaving only to serve his country in the U.S. Navy and to attend college.


There are a thousand stories of his childhood, but Janet Foreman, a life-long friend reminded everyone of the mischievous nature Bill displayed as a youngster.


Seems a snow storm hit Frederick one winter and Bill and Janet decided it would be fun to build some snowmen. But they did it in the middle of All Saints Street. Then they waited patiently for a car to come down the street and watched as it weaved in and out around the snowmen. It was good fun.


Bernard Brown, another life-long friend, recounted the influence Bill exerted on Frederick, even well into his 70s. He served as a physical education teacher at his alma mater – The Lincoln School, from which he had graduated. He went on to become a vice principal in Frederick County Public Schools, and ended his career as principal at West Frederick Middle School. Brown also mentioned another friend – George Dredden – who was unable to attend Wednesday’s ceremony due to illness.


From the response at the re-dedication of the bridge, Bill was blessed with several close friends, an achievement we all seek and don’t always find.


All the speakers pointed to Bill’s influence in the history of the Black community in Frederick. Mr. Brown made several references to a book Bill wrote, which was published just months before he died in January 2004. “Bill Lee Remembers” recounts life along Saints Street throughout the 20th Century. It is still available through Frederick Magazine.


One story that isn’t in the book demonstrates how Bill worked to better Frederick City and County.


While Bill taught at Lincoln in the middle 50s, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was rendered by the U. S. Supreme Court. It said that “separate but equal” education was not constitutional, that all public schools must be integrated.


In wasn’t long before Bill Lee received a call from Bill Talley, then the Walkersville High School basketball coach. The two Bills determined to play each other the next year in a home-and-home series of games. Negro teams and white teams didn’t compete in those days.


Players on both teams related a generation later how apprehensive they were going into those games. There was fear among them that racial tensions might disrupt the games.


It didn’t happen. The players saw how the two Bills interacted during warm-ups for the first game, how they appeared to them to be truly friends, thus societal tensions never enter into the play.


That was the character of both men shining through. They demonstrated to their players that racial disparity didn’t have a place on the court when they were on the sidelines. And it didn’t in other events shared between Frederick County schools.


Surely there were tensions as African American began to attend previously all-white schools. But the character of these two men carried a lot of weight.


And that was how Bill Lee went forward in the Frederick community. He always sought solutions quietly, not wanting to raise the height of the waves as they pushed through Frederick.


It seems so appropriate for this suspension bridge to be named in Bill Lee’s memory. As former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., wrote in a letter read by Frederick Mayor Jeff Holtzinger at the rededication:


“The soaring towers (of the bridge) reflect (Bill’s) belief in opportunity born of hard work, the steel cables…his quiet strength, and the bridge span…his ability to reach across traditional lines to build partnerships.”


Bill Lee will be missed as Frederick grows. But this bridge will be a constant reminder that good is possible, no matter who or what you are, as long as you are willing to let other have the credit for what you have done. He would have been embarrassed by Wednesday’s ceremony and what was said about him.


But he would still have been proud of what he was able to accomplish.

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