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January 21, 2004

William O. Lee Jr. – R.I.P.

John W. Ashbury

He grew up along West All Saints Street; never allowed to play in Baker Park; never allowed to try on clothes at the stores along Market Street; never allowed to eat in the up-scale restaurants in town.

But the Frederick he left just 10 days ago was a far different place than the one he entered 75 years ago last May. And, in large measure, he was responsible for the smooth transition to a more tolerant society in his hometown.

“He left us,” Cynnie said when she came on the line. “He passed about 10 o’clock this morning.”

And so, the stark reality, anticipated for so many months, set in. William O. “Sonny” Lee, Jr., an icon in the Frederick community, an historian, a civil rights leader, a man of deep faith in God, an educator, a politician, a husband, father, uncle and brother, had gone to his Heavenly reward.

It had been a tough year for Bill, but one that was blessed by the realization that his life had many benefits to go along with the pitfalls we all face. A dream of a lifetime was realized with the publication of his book on the black history of Frederick – Bill Lee Remembers.

And the accolades that came his way, from visits to his home by both Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, to the establishment of an endowment fund at the Community Foundation to continue the study of black history, made his final days almost bearable.

Bill Lee, or Sonny to his family and friends, made a conscious decision in 1954 to return to his hometown, a place he loved despite its segregated society. He realized that segregation prevailed everywhere then, but that perhaps he could make a differenced in the everyday life of those less fortunate than himself.

After graduating from Lincoln High School in 1945, Bill served in the U.S. Navy for three years. Then it was off to college. He received his bachelor’s degree from Howard University and sought employment as a phys ed teacher.

He was offered positions in Northern Virginia and in D.C. However, he ran into an old friend, a teacher at Lincoln, who said there was a job for him at his alma mater. Bill went home and told his wife, who is also a native of Frederick, that he was going back home to Frederick. As Cynthia tells the story, “I used every womanly wile I could muster, but he wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to come back to Frederick, but he was determined.”

It turned out to be a good thing for our community. Bill worked tirelessly at his job in those early years. He knew where he wanted to go and he slowly moved in that direction. It didn’t hurt that the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam at the same time. Brown v. Board of Education started the ball rolling and it wasn’t too many years before Lincoln was converted into an elementary school and all the black children were integrated into the schools from which they had been barred for generations.

As the children shifted schools, so did Bill, first to West Frederick Junior High as a teacher and administrator. And then, after the name was changed to West Frederick Middle School, he became its principal.

The influenced he had can never be fully measured. The lives he touched at West Frederick are too numerous to count. But one incident, years after his retirement in 1983, brought it home to him.

He was standing in front of 28 West All Saints Street talking to a fellow Kiwanian when a car turned from South Court onto eastbound Saints Street. The driver slammed his brakes and came to a screeching halt. He jumped out the door, ran over to Bill and hugged him.

Bill was taken aback. He sort of pulled away and looked at the man in a funny way. The man, who was in his mid to late 30s, just smiled and said: “Mr. Lee, I have wanted to do that for many years, but our paths never seemed to cross. Your guidance and understanding when I was a student at West Frederick changed the direction of my life and I just want to say thank you.”

Still sporting that funny look on his face, Bill said that it was a nice gesture but, “just who are you?” The man told him and Bill remembered him a little. He told his Kiwanis friend he never before realized the positive impact he had had on that young man’s life.

There are countless stories like that. Nearly everyone who knew Bill Lee can tell a similar tale. And his influence and inspiration did not stop when he retired as a principal. He went on to be a two-term Frederick City alderman and to serve countless charities in numerous capacities. Just this past fall he was named among the first Wertheimer Fellows of The Community Foundation, a recognition of his years of volunteer work.

There was something very special about Bill Lee for me personally. He helped a middle class boy understand how things were different in our societies, how his life was different from mine, and yet, how much they were alike, He had a great love for his grandparents who raised him, much the same as my own love for my mother’s parents. He reveled in the accomplishments of his children, just like I do in mine. He devoted his life to making this a better community for everyone, something I can only aspire to do. He worked himself to the bone sometimes, and expected little monetary reward. But he got his reward in knowing just how good a job he had done.

We shared a passion for the history of this place we both call home. For nearly 20 years I have urged Bill to write a book using the mountains of materials he had collected over the years about the black community here. There was always something else that seemed more important to him at the time. But as he grew older, he realized that the book must be done.

In the summer of 2002, Dr. Earlene Thornton, Rose Chaney and Lynda Weedon began the arduous task of sorting through all of Bill’s materials. It took months, not simply because there was so much to see, but because these ladies would stop and marvel at some picture or brochure, or newspaper. It was a revelation to them – all this history at Bill’s beck and call.

When Bill learned he had incurable lung cancer a year or less ago, these ladies redoubled their efforts. They knew that a lot of the history Bill had was in his head and it had to be written down before it was too late. Tom Gorsline, of Diversions Publications, publishers of Frederick Magazine, came forward and made Bill’s dream an attainable reality.

In November, Bill Lee Remembers hit the street. The smile on Bill’s face when he clutched that first copy in his hand is one that will always bring a smile to my heart. A certain peace descended on him that day, knowing that now he could relax and enjoy his last days with his beloved “Cynnie.”

And so the family gathered a few days ago on a Saturday night as family and friends realized the end was near. There were remembrances and laughter and solemn goodbyes. And a special twinkle in Bill’s eye said all that needed to be said: “Thanks to all of you for your help in my journey through life. Without you – each and every one of you – I couldn’t have done much of anything.”

The next morning Bill Lee passed away.

Though he is gone, what he left behind will forever enhance our community. His quiet manner reduced tension on the street and in the hallways of our schools. He brought understanding. And he made every Fredericktonians a better person despite the fact he knew relatively few of them.

Rest In Peace, Bill Lee. You will be missed, but you so richly deserve your Heavenly rewards.

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