Whether it was becoming the president of Blanchet Catholic School, serving on Keizer City Council or helping create the Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) in Salem, Charles (Chuck) Lee always made his presence felt in the Keizer-Salem community.
“Chuck was seamless. He was authentic and incredibly integrious and had great wit. No matter what he did, he made an impact,” said Krina Lee, his wife of nearly eight years. “It was so important to him to live and lead by example.”
Lee passed away on Saturday, Sept. 4 at the age of 72, but leaves a lasting legacy, highlighted by his care and service for others, as well as his love for education.
“I really looked up to him. He was a champion of education,” Keizer City Councilor Roland Herrera said. “I admired him so much and I am so grateful for him.”
After being told he had Parkinson's disease in 2019, Lee was officially diagnosed with multiple system atrophy (MSA) late last year. MSA is a rare, degenerative neurological disorder affecting the body's involuntary (autonomic) functions, including blood pressure, breathing, and motor control — there is currently no cure for the disease.
Even with a crippling disease ravaging through his body, Lee was a fighter until the end according to his wife.
“He was a fighter. That was how he lived his life. He was always fighting to raise the last dollar during a fundraiser and he was fighting through the last days of his life,” Krina Lee said. “He was persistent. He had tenacity.”
Lee was born and raised in Seattle, Wash. and was hired at the age of 25 to become the principal of St. Alphonsus School, making him the youngest Catholic school principal in Washington.
Despite being from Washington, the city of Keizer, or in his words “God's country,” was the place he was most fond of.
“He just fell in love with the town,” Krina Lee said
In 1995, Lee founded Blanchet and became president of the school two years later — a role he served in until 2013. Under his direction, Lee helped Blanchet triple their enrollment and raised over $16 million for tuition assistance, renovations and school programs — Blanchet has established a scholarship fund in Lee's name.
The summer before the school opened, Lee delivered Blanchet sweatshirts to every student in the school as an official welcoming gift. For his entire tenure at Blanchet, Lee also made it a tradition to deliver handwritten notes of encouragement to every teacher in the school.
“I think it was a way for him to reveal how much he cared,” Krina said. “Appreciating people and letting them know that they are supported was very important to him.”
It didn't take long for Lee to become a fixture in the Keizer community. Using the Volcanoes Stadium parking lot to host a fundraiser for Blanchet, Lee became close with Salem-Keizer Volcanoes owner Jerry Walker, initially bonding over their mutual love of the Washington Huskies. Lee wound up sponsoring Walker in the Catholic Church and later became his godfather.
Lee and Walker would work together for the next 25 years to host fundraisers for Blanchet, as well as other philanthropic activities in the area.
“Chuck was a visionary who was able to think big and possessed the unique ability to deliver results. His ideas became reality. A man of faith, who earned the respect of the longtime leaders of the community by doing what he said with honesty and integrity,” Walker said.
Catholic education was incredibly important to Lee, but so was being an active citizen, which is why Lee ran for a seat on Keizer City Council in 2001 — Lee was elected and served on the council for six years. He also ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 2006.
“He loved politics and he loved running for office. He felt like it was his responsibility to show kids that it was important to be a part of the community you live in,” former Keizer Mayor Lore Christopher said. “When he took charge of a project, you knew you could rely on him to get the job done.”
At the Keizer City Council meeting on Monday, Sept. 20, Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark proclaimed Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 as a day of remembrance and celebration of the life and achievements of Lee.
“He was all about the kids. He had a fabulously constructive, get-it-done attitude, and I appreciate the legacy that he has left,” Clark said.
“My dad always said to leave something better than you found it, and I think that Chuck Lee certainly did that,” Councilor Ross Day added.
After being a city councilor for six years, Lee decided that he wanted to serve in a different capacity as a member of the Salem-Keizer School Board. Lee was elected to represent Zone 6 (Keizer) on the board, where he served three terms from 2007 to 2019. In 2014, Lee played a role in the hiring of current district Superintendent Christy Perry.
“Chuck was an amazing community leader. In the boardroom he always worked to bring people together. He was focused on students and what was best for the district in supporting students. He always cared for others before himself. An incredible leader and human,” Perry said.
Diversity and inclusion were at the core of Lee's motivation as a principal and school board member.
“It's because he loved all the kids. If you aren't advocating for every single child, for their success and health, then there is no way you can be inclusive or equitable,” Krina Lee said.
“He was all about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Herrera added. “He always wanted to hear other points of view.”
According to his wife, Lee's passion for education stemmed from the genuine love and care he had for his students.
“Being around the kids was his favorite. He still remembers the names of nearly every kid he met in the 16 years he was at Blanchet,” Krina Lee said. “He wanted to be involved in your life.”
In 2009, Lee received an award from the National Catholic Association for outstanding leadership and service and in 2013, he and Krina were honored with the Service to Education Award at the Keizer First Citizen banquet in 2013.
Lee initially anticipated spending the rest of his career at Blanchet. However, when he got an opportunity to play a crucial role in the creation of CTEC, he knew he couldn't pass it up.
“He anguished over leaving Blanchet. He thought that was where he was going to retire from. But I told him that it was time to make a change, and take that heartfelt passion into a new venture,” Krina said.
The vision for CTEC is to prepare high school students for high-skill, high-wage and high-demand careers while developing the professional skills, technical knowledge, academic foundation and real-world experience to assure their success upon graduation.
The school, which opened in 2015, was created thanks to an innovative public-private partnership between Salem-Keizer Public Schools and Mountain West Investment Corporation — Lee was hired by Mountain West Investment Corporation to guide the private side of the partnership.
“We are committed to growing Oregon’s economic vitality. With this strategic investment and innovative public-private partnership, our region can develop a workforce that is so highly skilled and trained that our state becomes a magnet for new business and strengthens existing industry,” Lee said about the mission of CTEC.
Lee's passion for education and service was second only to the love he had for his family and the unique bond he created with his 11 grandchildren.
Every summer, Lee hosted “Camp Poppa” where he would take all of his grandkids on a trip, often consisting of museums, college visits, the Great Wolf Lodge and a lot of pizza.
“It was so important for him to have a relationship with his grandkids. He would take them to do something fun. It was always an adventure,” Krina Lee said.
One of his grandkids, Sam Fulwiler, became the lead singer of a rock band called The Macks, and their debut album was called Camp Poppa. The band is still well known for wearing caps and t-shirts that say Camp Poppa.
Making the people in his life a priority is one of the things Krina Lee will remember most about her husband.
“He put people first. Relationships were the most important to him. At the end of the day, that is what his legacy entails,” she said.
A celebration of life will be held for Lee will be held at Blanchet on Sunday, Sept. 26 (4373 Market St. NE, Salem) beginning with a Rosary at 1 p.m., followed by Mass at 2 p.m. A “tailgate” reception will follow the service. The service is open to the public.
Matt Rawlings: [email protected]