Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Johnny's Support For Yale

John J. Lee, Jr. '58, '59 MEng. appeared on Sports Illustrated's cover 58 years ago this week: "No one loved Yale more or served it better." (Yale, SI photos)
There's a story about Yale basketball great Johnny Lee '58, '59 MEng. when he was considering where to play in college while he was still in high school. It's an account that made it into a recent history of the ACC basketball conference. The book is about other colleges with luminous basketball traditions along the Atlantic seaboard, not about Yale. But Yale squeezed itself into this story.

He and another New York City player were being recruited by schools around the country. Lee had been a star forward at Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall. Reports from that time say he had 65 scholarship offers. When he and the player happened to drive through Wilmington, Del., they passed the site of the large company DuPont.  Johnny's mother, urging him to go to Yale, the story is told, said the CEO of DuPont will likely come from Yale, "not Carolina."

The other player eventually enrolled at North Carolina (and helped lead his team to a national championship). Johnny went to Yale, set records in New Haven that are standards for excellence for Yale players today, and became a CEO of not one, but a few, companies. And today Yale men's and women's basketball players compete in a recently renovated Gothic arena on a court named for him, the "John L. Lee, Jr. Amphitheater."

It was 58 years ago this week when Lee's face graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; he was that good. The magazine called him "the next great Ivy League scholar-athlete."

The magazine was in its infancy, growing, but circulated nationally and seeking to find a popular identity in big-time sports. Still, to be anointed a cover boy on a glossy publication distributed into mailboxes from East to West Coast was a sportsman's dream, a blazing honor then, as it is today. (Did it help that the magazine fell under the auspices of Time, Inc., then under the direction of founder Henry Luce '20?)

Lee's exploits on the court were legendary, astonishing by even the level of basketball play in 2015. In a game against Oregon State, he made 21 of 21 free throws.  Twice against Harvard, he scored over 40 points. Yale records show he scored 1,493 total varsity points, was an all-America selection, and averaged 20.3 points/game in three seasons, third best in Yale career history. (Scarsdale native Butch Graves '84 holds the career record at Yale for most points with 2,050 points, something he accomplished over four seasons.)

Yale men's basketball has had its downs and ups and downs since Lee graduated. The team won the Ivy championship his junior year and lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the 1957 NCAA tournament. It has returned to the tournament only once (1962) since his playing days.

Every time a Yale team flirts with an above-par season or scares Penn or Princeton (or Harvard, these days) in a run for an Ivy League title, basketball pundits and experts in the region compare that Yale team against the successes of Lee's teams at Yale.  (The 2015 team, 13-6 this year and leading the Ivy League, has been on an upswing the past two years, highlighted by its stunning upset over defending NCAA champion UConn last December. Chappaqua native Matt Townsend '15 is winding up his senior season on the squad.)

When he finished his Yale playing days, Lee was selected by the New York Knicks in the NBA in a draft that featured NBA legends Elgin Baylor and Hal Greer. Lee was chosen 19th overall that year (Baylor, second). Baylor became one of the best NBA players in history. Lee walked away without bothering to suit up in an NBA game. He had other plans, many of which directed him back to Yale.

Ignoring professional basketball, he took the next step to return to Yale to earn a master's in chemical engineering after his undergraduate degree in the same. At Yale as a highly regarded basketball star and scoring ace, standing 6-3, he was "Johnny." Yale Daily News accounts of the time are filled with stories of "Johnny scoring 23," "Johnny leading the Elis to victory," and "Johnny winning yet another award."

After Yale, he was better known as "John."
Yale basketball teams play their home games in the John  Lee, Jr. Amphitheater. Lee helped spearhead its renovation in 1996. (Yale photos)

In later years, during periods when he was running companies, big and small, Lee, a Westchester (Larchmont) resident, was a prominent Yale supporter in ways that few could keep up with. "No one loved Yale better or served it more," Richard Levin '74 Ph.D., former Yale president, said around the time the amphitheater was renamed for him and he was leading the "...and for Yale" campaign to raise a billion dollars.

Many knew Lee to be one of Yale's best leaders ever in fundraising. He chaired the successful $1.75-billion campaign in the late 1990's (reaching fundraising heights no university had touched before), served as a trustee fellow on the Yale Corporation, and contributed, participated, and volunteered in ways no Yale president, AYA official, trustee, faculty member or classmate can fully account for. He was involved in the alumni groups for engineering graduates and basketball players and participated in admissions interviews with the Alumni Schools Committee.

He contributed funds, as well, to help endow a professorship in engineering and to support the men's and women's basketball programs.

Yale rewarded him with his fair share of medals and citations. In 1989, he received Yale's highest award for service, the Yale Medal. In 1996, Yale named the building wing for him, the amphitheater space in Payne Whitney, in his honor after he helped in badly needed renovation. 

Three of his four children followed him by attending and graduating from Yale. 

In business, he was at the top of the helm, as Chair, CEO or COO, for a series of energy companies, including Barber Oil Corp., Phibro Resource Corp., Tosco Corp., Hexcel Corp., and his own Lee Development Corp. In 1977 at Yale, he received an award as a distinguished engineering alumnus.

Somewhere in this lengthy list of athletic, academic and professional achievements, there's a noteworthy Westchester tie. It makes sense that his Yale engagement would include the region and neighborhoods surrounding him. At the YWAA Scholarship Banquet in Oct., 2000, Lee served as Vice Chair under Honorary Chair George Pataki '67, then governor of New York.

Merrell Clark '57, '70MAR, president of YWAA at the time, sat with Lee at the banquet and said recently, "(Lee was) active in Westchester in several ways, mostly in helping entrepreneurs get some traction and especially in making loans and grants to students who needed financial support, whether Yale-bound or not."

Lee served his alma mater in multiple leadership and voluntary roles, but he still felt indebted to Yale. He pledged a percentage of his annual income to Yale. He earmarked many of his gifts for financial aid, grateful for the opportunity Yale afforded him when he was a Brooklyn student relying on aid in choosing Yale and turning down 64 other offers.

Clark said, "(John) was larger than life in many, many ways. I was lucky to have him accept my invitation and to be near him at the Scholarship Banquet."

Shortly after the banquet, Lee was diagnosed with kidney cancer, an unexpected illness that took his life a short time later.  He died in May, 2001, at 64.  "John Lee, An Athlete at Yale Who Chose Industry Over Knicks," read the headline above his obituary in the New York Times.

"When I attended the memorial service, the church was packed," Clark recalled.  "The Whiffenpoofs participated."

Clark added, "He tried to help anyone who came to him for help, and he especially cared about students on financial aid, as he had been himself."

Presidential adviser, author and TV commentator David Gergen '63 was the speaker at the 2001 Scholarship Banquet the following year. YWAA awarded its Yale Outstanding Service Award to Lee posthumously. Lee's widow Gayle accepted the award on his behalf and spoke to the attendees. "She was terrific," Clark said. "Very inspiring."

Before the banquet, Clark and Lee's widow Gayle had met to decide to make a memorial gift to YWAA for scholarships to Westchester students attending Yale. "I insisted that the award be given in her name, as well, as they were always together and he would have wanted it that way." She wrote a large check for what is now the Gayle and John Lee Educational Trust. Others in their family made contributions, too.  Today the fund continues to award annual gifts for financial aid each year to Westchester students.

All thanks to "Johnny," who once sank 41 in a game against Harvard and had his portrait on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as a whole nation learned about his standout play.

Lee (L, above) chats with Susan King at the 2000 YWAA Scholarship Dinner.  David Gergen '63 and Merrell Clark '57, 70MAR join Gayle Lee at the 2001 YWAA Dinner.  (YWAA photos)

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