SACRAMENTO, Calif. — He was tireless in the fight for access and respect for Black journalists and relentless in championing for Blacks to have a seat at the proverbial table.
Sacramento Observer publisher emeritus William H. Lee died on Sunday, Sept. 22. Lee was 83 years old.
Lee was born on May 29, 1936, in Austin, Texas. His parents, Rev. Charles R. Lee and Carrie Lee), with sons William and James R. Lee, moved to California, first to San Francisco and then to Sacramento, in the early 1940s.
Lee attended Sacramento State University (1953-1955) and went on to earn a B.A. degree in accounting from UC Berkeley in 1957. He was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Southeastern University in 1970.
After graduating from Berkeley, Lee had short but fruitful employment stays with both Aerojet and IBM Corps. His dream to establish his own firm, however, led him to open his own real estate and land development company in 1960.
The success he had in real estate allowed him to invest in the much-needed community newspaper publishing business. He along with local radio connoisseur Geno Gladden and businessman John W. Cole, launched The Sacramento Observer on Nov. 22, 1962.
A short time after starting the paper, Gladden passed away, and in 1965, Lee and his wife, Kathryn, became sole owners of the paper, also starting at the time the Lee Publishing Company.
The publishing company grew during the 1970s and ‘80s, to publishing at one point six distinct publications in California and Nevada — including Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Stockton, Solano County and Reno, Nevada.
Lee took on local, state and national leadership roles. From 1970 to 1989, he served on the board of directors and as an officer of the National Newspapers Publisher’s Association (NNPA).
He was co-founder and a longtime president of the West Coast Black Publisher’s Association (WCBPA). Lee was named “Publisher of the Year” by the WCBPA in 1985.
Active in the field of journalism and the newspaper industry, Lee’s publications, along with his call for quality and excellence in the industry, earned a national reputation. He was a member of the jury, judging for Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism in 1987.
Lee’s newspaper, The Sacramento Observer, has been named the nation’s No. 1 Black newspaper six times; being awarded the coveted John B. Russwurm trophy, the nation’s top newspaper publishing honor given by the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
A recognized business leader, Lee served on the board of directors of a number of national and local companies, including Blue Cross of California; Methodist Hospital (Sacramento); the Superior Valley Small Business Development Corporation; the advisory board of Wells Fargo Bank; and the advisory board of the former Home Savings financial institution.
Lee’s commitment to serve others kept him active in civic and educational circles. He was named Alumnus of the Year in 1993 by UC Berkeley’s Black Alumni Association.
He was appointed by California Gov. George Deukmejain to chair the statewide Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday committee, leading to the state’s observance of the MLK holiday. Years later, in January 2014, Lee would serve as the grand marshal of the annual Rev. Martin Luther King Holiday March in Sacramento.
In Sacramento, the prestigious Sacramento Magazine named Lee as one of the “50 Most Powerful Leaders” in the city in 2006. He was a co-founder and former president of the Men’s Civic League, co-founder of the Sacramento Urban League and co-founder of the Sacramento Area Black Caucus.
Lee has been honored by a large number of groups and organizations for his long and dedicated community service and leadership. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the California Black Chamber of Commerce and the Sacramento Chapter of the Links and the Observer was inducted into the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Hall of Fame in 2012.
Lee has also been saluted by Sacramento 100 Black Men Inc; the Sacramento Branch of the NAACP (D.D. Mattocks Award); the American Leadership Forum (Exemplary Leader Award); the Congressman Bob Matsui Award (for Distinguished Community Service); the Greater Sacramento Urban League’s Co-Founder Award; the California State University, Sacramento Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award; and many others.
In 2012, Fortune School of Education named an elementary school, William H. Lee College Prep, in honor of Lee. The school’s computer lab is named after Lee’s late wife.
In January 2015, Kevin Johnson, Sacramento’s first African-American mayor, awarded Lee with the Mort Friedman Legacy Award, which honors an outstanding individual who has made notable civic and community contributions within the Sacramento city and region.
— (The Sacramento Observer)