Noted philanthropist Desmond Lee, 92, dies
Desmond Lee, a magnanimous businessman, civic leader and philanthropist who donated more than $70 million over the decades, died at the age of 92 on Jan. 12 of a stroke. In 1996, he founded the Des Lee Collaborative Vision, which endows professorships at three major universities in St. Louis: University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University and Webster University.
Lee donated to Washington University on the condition that professors agree to spend a significant amount of their time working within the community and collaborating with one another—a vision that not only benefits collegians, but also the entire community.
To date, Collaborative Vision has created 33 professorships, including four at Washington University.
These professorships include 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 in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work; and the E. Desmond Lee Professor in Entrepreneurship.
In addition, Lee supported and served on the board of numerous community organizations, such as 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.
An avid lover of music, Lee was a great patron of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) as well.
“His support was tremendous, not just in treasure but in spirit. There was no better cheerleader for this organization,” SLSO president and executive director Fred Bronstein said. “Des always understood the challenges inherent in sustaining a great orchestra and never lacked optimism and belief that it was a vital institution to this city. Of course, beyond the SLSO, Des was a force in Saint Louis; his impact will be felt for years to come.”
Lee was born on Aug. 6, 1917, in Sikeston, Mo., and grew up in Columbia, Mo. He attended Washington University on a full scholarship and played as captain of the University basketball team. In 1940, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration and then enlisted in the Army during World War II.
After the war, Lee made his fortune by founding Lee-Rowan Co. along with his father Edgar, college classmate Jim Rowan and Rowan’s father Jim. The company manufactured patented metal trouser creasers, hangers and wire shelves that were sold to retailers.
Lee’s prolific career as an illustrious and award-winning philanthropist took off in 1993 when he sold his company to what is now Newell-Rubbermaid.
Lee is survived by his wife, Mary Ann; children Gary Lee, Christy Pope and Gayle Lee; and two stepchildren, Andrew C. Taylor and Jo Ann Taylor Kindle. He is also survived by four grandchildren: David Lee, a professional basketball player with the New York Knicks; Elizabeth Johnson; Desmond Duggan; and Lyrica Marquez; and by five step-grandchildren: Christine Taylor, Patricia Taylor, Carolyn Kindle, Alison Kindle and Kelly Taylor; and two great-grandchildren.