Lifetime Impression

E. Desmond Lee. Photo by Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photo Services.

E. Desmond Lee, alumnus and major benefactor to WU, dies at 92

Posted by Liam Otten January 13, 2010

More on E. Desmond Lee from KSDK, including video commentary from Carmon Colangelo about Lee's legacy

St. Louis philanthropist E. Desmond Lee — an alumnus and major benefactor to Washington University in St. Louis — died Tuesday, Jan. 12, at St. John's Hospital in Creve Couer, Mo. of complications from a stroke. He was 92.

Born in Sikeston, Mo., Lee grew up in Columbia, Mo., and attended Washington University on a full athletic scholarship, earning letters in track and basketball. In 1939, while still a student, he and classmate Jim Rowan co-founded Lee-Rowan Manufacturing Co. in a downtown St. Louis warehouse, with Lee serving as designer and toolmaker. Their first product was a patented wire-frame hanger that could force a crease into work pants drying on a clothesline.

Lee earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1940 from what is now the Olin Business School. However, with the start of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he would achieve the rank of captain. Following Officers Training School at Fort Belvoir, Va., Lee was assigned command of a troop of black soldiers — the usual practice in the then-segregated armed forces.

"I saw the tremendous racial discrimination in the South," he told Washington University Magazine in 2000. "The soldiers were treated terribly; it made a lifetime impression on me."

After the war, Lee returned to work with his company, which quickly expanded to become one of the nation's leading manufacturers of hangers, wire-shelving, closet accessories, and other products for both consumers and retailers. (One major client was Lee's high-school friend Sam Walton, founder of Wal-mart.)

In 1993, Lee sold Lee-Rowan to what is now Newell-Rubbermaid and used the proceeds to create the E. Desmond Lee Foundation, which over the years has given more than $70 million to a long list of educational and cultural institutions, particularly those working with disadvantaged youth. Recipients include the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, United Way of Greater St. Louis, Butterfly House, Magic House, YMCA, Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis Science Center, Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

In 1996, Lee launched Des Lee Collaborative Vision to endow professorships at area universities. To date, the collaborative has established 33 professorships — 23 funded by Lee and 10 by other individuals and groups — including four at Washington University.

These are: the E. Desmond Lee Professorship for Collaboration in the Arts, currently held by Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts; the E. Desmond Lee Professorship for Community Collaboration, held by Bruce Lindsey, dean of the College of Architecture and the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design; the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity, held by Sarah Gehlert, Ph.D., in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work; and the E. Desmond Lee Professor in Entrepreneurship.

Lee's contributions to the St. Louis community were recognized with the 1996 Man-of-the-Year Award, sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1997, he received the National Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the National Society of Fund Raising Executives. Other honors include an honorary degree in humane letters from the University of Missouri — St. Louis; the Martin Luther King Local Philanthropy Award; and two NAACP Humanitarian Awards.

On campus, Lee received the Olin Business School's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1994 and the university's Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1997. In 1998, he was awarded an honorary degree for his support and advocacy for higher education. During the 2000 Founder's Day, he received the Robert S. Brookings Award for exemplifying the alliance between Washington University and its community. In 2005, Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Lee, received the university's Jane and Whitney Harris St. Louis Community Service Award.

Two university facilities are named in Lee's honor. The 1,115-seat E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall, located in the 560 Music Center in University City, is the university's largest performance space. The 2,500-square-foot Des Lee Gallery, at 1627 Washington Ave., is one of the region's prominent noncommercial art venues, hosting student and faculty exhibitions as well as work by local and internationally known contemporary artists.

Lee is survived by his wife, Mary Ann; three children, Gary Lee, Christy Pope and Gayle Lee; and two stepchildren, Andrew C. Taylor and Jo Ann Taylor Kindle. He also is survived by four grandchildren: David Lee, a professional basketball player with the New York Knicks, Elizabeth Johnson, Desmond Duggan and Lyrica Marquez; five step-grandchildren, Christine Taylor, Patricia Taylor, Carolyn Kindle, Alison Kindle and Kelly Taylor; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14, at the Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church, 9450 Clayton Road. The family requests that memorial donations be made to one of Lee's favorite charities.