Posted November 3, 2022
Perhaps I remain among the few still involved in local government or media who worked with Gary Lee. When I covered my first news stories in the early 1970’s, Gary represented half of Dryden on what was then known as the Tompkins County Board of Representatives. Before I arrived, Gary had been Dryden Supervisor. For a time, he chaired our Board of Reps. Gary Lee went on to the State Assembly in 1974, and then served two terms in Congress beginning in ’78.
Retired to Florida, Gary Lee died October 12th at age 89. News of his death took a while to travel north. It reached the floor of the Tompkins County Legislature November 1st.
“I think it’s important to note that Gary Lee had done something that not a lot of us do, and that is make it into Congress,” said Mike Lane, one of Dryden’s two current county legislators.
Mike Lane was not the only one that night to construct praise out of the dust of distant memory.
“He was my inspiration for getting involved in public service and politics,” Groton legislator Lee Shurtleff professed. A dedicated Republican like Lee, Shurtleff provided the meeting’s most eloquent tribute.
“My first door-to-door campaigning was with Gary when he ran for Congress in 1978,” Shurtleff recalled. The Groton legislator remembered how Gary Lee once leaned on the Farmers’ Home Administration to authorize emergency repairs to Groton’s senior citizens’ housing complex after it was “wiped out” by a 1981 flood. And when the Groton Community Health Care Center’s much-needed skilled nursing facility appeared, in Shurtleff’s words, “all but dead on arrival,” its federal funding tangled somewhere in the bureaucratic mill, Congressman Lee intervened and “at the last minute insured the funding of that facility.”
“Make no doubts about it,” Shurtleff continued, “He was one of the first Reagan Republicans.” And Gary could be “as partisan as the next one.” But politics was different back then. Politicians, Shurtleff observed, “seemed to be able to maintain a level of decorum and respect and even in the minority have a bit of effectiveness in how they represented their community.”
“There’s a reason he’s an inspiration and why I’ve continued on here,” Shurtleff said in concluding his spontaneous tribute. “You can be partisan, but yet you can still be effective and maintain a level of respect. And that should go across all levels of government.”
I agree with Lee Shurtleff. Gary Lee built bridges. He reached across the aisle. He worked with those with whom he might often disagree. I never recall him uttering a divisive or unkind word.
Back in post-Watergate times and then bridging into the Reagan era, some in media had trouble dealing with Gary Lee. I remember that a few of the more liberal reporters at The Ithaca Journal complained to me that Gary Lee would not return their phone calls. I, a radio journalist, never had that problem. Neither did my sister and colleague, Marcia. Gary always made himself available to us. We respected his partisanship, and he honored our objectivity and our need to get the facts.
Gary was a gentleman first, an elected leader second, and a politician only someplace down the line. When Marcia and I requested his endorsement of a never-to-be-built radio station we’d proposed decades ago, Gary Lee paid us this compliment:
“It has been my professional pleasure to know Bob and Marcia professionally for nearly twenty years in their various radio capacities in Ithaca, New York and particularly at radio station WTKO. Their commitment to professional excellence, the best in principles and precepts, and their relentless pursuit of all stories presented to the listening public in a fair, rational, objective and informed manner was a special treat for the public good.”
That was how Gary Lee wrote, how he spoke, and how he lived. Gary tried to discover the best in everyone. He never sought to divide, but rather to find a patch of common ground, to strike compromise, to get the job done. He advanced his conservative principles, to be sure. But Gary Lee never sought to tear his rivals down so as only to elevate his own stature. County Representative Lee, Assemblyman Lee, Congressman Lee earned my respect.
Fittingly, Gary Lee’s obituary states, “He chose to lead by example and to mentor the leaders of the future.”
I have not talked to Congressman Lee in decades. I wish I had before he passed. We’re told a celebration of Gary’s life will be held in 2023. I hope it travels a path to Tompkins County. Gary’s Town of Dryden, our Tompkins County, and those like me whose memories reach back that far to his era, deserve the occasion to pay our respects. And to say goodbye.