Chuck Lee (Courtesy photo)
Every year he served as a school president, Chuck Lee spent Labor Day going classroom to classroom. He sat at the teacher’s desk and wrote individual notes to them, observing the classrooms and complimenting teachers on how they arranged them.
“Every single teacher, every single year for 20 years, had a note waiting for them on their desk on the first day of school,” said his wife, Krina Lee.
Though much of his student-focused and meticulous approach to education was not in public view, Chuck Lee helped steer the growth of public and Catholic schooling in the Northwest for over 45 years. He died on Sept. 4.
Lee, 72, served on the Salem-Keizer school board for 12 years and was a founding leader of Blanchet Catholic School in northeast Salem, and the Salem-Keizer School District’s Career and Technical Education Center.
In those roles, he raised millions of dollars for educational programs for local kids, and pushed for the passage of school bonds allowing for the renovation and expansion of district schools.
“You could tell right away he was not in it for himself. This was not a way to build his career,” said Jim Green, who served with Lee for two, four-year terms on the Salem-Keizer school board. “He always, always, always put students above anything else.”
Lee began his education career in Seattle, where he became the youngest Catholic school principal in Washington at 25 when he took over at St. Alphonsus School.
He founded Blanchet in 1997 and served as president until 2013. He knew all the students’ names, high-fiving them in the hallways and playing cards with them during lunch, said current President Bob Weber, who joined the school the same year.
“When people pass away, people can exaggerate their impact,” Weber said. “I think it'd be hard to exaggerate Chuck's impact on this community.”
The two met when Lee was serving as principal at Valley Catholic School in 1993 where he gave Weber his first teaching job.
“I was nervous and anxious to see if I could get a job, and in typical Chuck fashion, he made me feel much more comfortable,” Weber said. “He kind of made me feel like I was the most important guy in the room and didn't talk down to me.”
Colleagues said Lee stood out for his charisma and sense of humor.
In his time at Blanchet, he was known for his phrase, “Where there’s a will, we want to be in it.” A proud resident of Keizer, he often called the city “God’s country” and joked that the school district’s name should be swapped for the “Keizer-Salem School Board.”
Students also knew Lee by the stories he loved to tell.
If an assembly wrapped up early, Lee would tell students about the carpet that once filled Blanchet’s gym when the school was first founded.
Basketball and volleyball teams had to play on the carpet, something students complained that “real schools” didn’t have to do, Weber said. Lee made a commitment to the first graduating class that they would be playing on a hardwood floor before they graduated.
When the carpet was replaced their senior year, people asked for squares of the carpet as a memento to remember all the times Lee told the story.
“The kids would roll their eyes, and they loved it,” Weber said.
Lee served as a Keizer city councilor from 2001 to 2007 and ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 2006.
He was on the school board that hired Christy Perry, Salem-Keizer School District superintendent, in 2014.
She said Lee immediately began inviting her to events so she could get to know the community and meet people who would help her do her job well.
“He didn’t leverage relationships for what he could get out of them. He was about making relationships,” she said. “While a boss, I considered him a friend, an ally, a champion all at the same time.”
Perry said she visited Lee several weeks ago while he was ill.
“Here he was, really sick, and you know what his first question to me was? ‘How are you?’” she said, pausing to hold back tears. “He always cared about the people first.”
Chuck Lee, center left in a tan suit, applauds as CTEC Principal Rhonda Rhodes cuts the ribbon for the school's new law enforcement and business programs in September 2018. (Moriah Ratner/Special to Salem Reporter)
Green said equity was Lee’s top priority throughout his career. He recalled a time when Lee became vehemently upset about a publishing company that didn’t meet its contract with the school board for Spanish-speaking curriculum.
“He wanted to make sure that kids across the district got a fair shake, regardless of their backgrounds, regardless of their income or socioeconomic status, regardless of their color of their skin,” he said. “He wanted to make sure that when you left the Salem-Keizer School District, you're on equal footing with all the other graduates.”
Green said Lee got bonds passed on the school board by going out and knocking on doors.
“He’d talk to anybody he could talk to about it, whether it was business or a faith-based community or parent groups, community groups, he would go and talk to every individual about those bonds,” he said. “He had the ability to bring diverse opinions and diverse groups together for the one sole purpose of really providing a better outcome for kids.”
Lee played a key role in founding CTEC, a public-private partnership which offers high school students training for high-skill careers.
Rhonda Rhodes, the school’s principal, described Lee as a master fundraiser who explained to people the difference their money would make in children’s lives, and the difference those children could make in the community and local economy.
She recalled a time Lee brought two competing Salem car dealers together and marveled at the possibilities of a homegrown, local pipeline of young people with technical auto body skills.
“He really talked about it as an investment, like, ‘Are you willing to invest in our local youth? Are you willing to invest in the future of your company? And are you willing to invest right here in our own community?'” Rhodes said. The dealers together donated $250,000.
Rhodes said CTEC plans to honor Lee with a scholarship for students.
Lee’s wife, Krina Lee, described her husband as a strategic planner who always did his homework. Once a week, the pair said, “Let’s do calendars” — they went out for breakfast and coordinated appointments and events for the coming weeks.
“He could tell you the salaries of the bus drivers. He could tell you the curriculum. He could tell you the bell schedules,” Krina Lee said. “The letters and the texts and the messages and the phone calls I've had from teachers, all of them who said that ‘I've never had a better boss. I've never had a better mentor. I've never had a better leader. He believed in me.’”
Lee loved few things more than education, but nothing more than his grandchildren. Krina Lee said they sat down every week to watch their grandkids compete in back-to-back games on their TV.
“We'd watch Norma’s volleyball game, and then we'd switch over and watch Jack’s basketball game, and then we'd switch over and watch Carson’s football game. And then he’d the next day text them, ‘Oh my God, that play in the third quarter was awesome,’” she said, holding back tears. “He was poppa. What would Chuck want to be known for? He was a good poppa.”
Lee was diagnosed in December 2020 with multiple system atrophy, a rare neurodegenerative disease.
The day before his death, Krina told him she loved him.
“I don’t blame you,” he replied.
“He's 24 hours from dying, and he still had his wit with him,” she said.
A public service for Lee will be held Sunday, Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. at Blanchet.
“He was full of integrity, full of spirit. Whenever you were talking with him, you were the only person he cared about. He remembered everything,” Krina Lee said. “Some people have one demeanor when they're at work, and some people have one demeanor when they're at home, and some people have a demeanor when they're playing golf. Chuck had one demeanor, and it was seamless ... He was kind and he was all in."
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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