Richmond County’s education and legal communities are mourning the loss of a founding member of Richmond Community College and long-time attorney, Hugh A. Lee.
Lee, 91, passed away on Sunday at Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst. His friends and colleagues remember Lee as a man of compassion and conviction, and a champion of education.
A native of Maggie Valley, Lee attended Western Carolina University and the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his LL.B. and Juris Doctorate from Duke University.
He served in World War II and the Korean War and had achieved the rank of major before his discharge. He practiced law in Richmond County for more than 50 years, and served as a member of the N.C. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1984 and from 1993 until 1997.
In 1964 he was appointed to the Richmond Community College Board of Trustees by Governor Terry Sanford, and he served continuously as board chair until his death.
In 1989, he received an Honorary Associate in Arts Degree from the college for his service. In 1990, the Lee Building was named in his honor. In 1995, he received the Association of Community College Trustees Lifetime Membership Award at a national convention in Seattle, Wash. In 2001, he was named the Richmond Community College Foundation Citizen of the Year. In 2012, he was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by Governor Beverly Perdue.
Lee never took any credit for his awards, but acknowledged the dedication of all board members. He attributed the success of his leadership to good members and to promoting debate and discussion on issues that might otherwise not get proper attention. He also felt he was able to steer the college out of factional and partisan politics both within and without the institution.
In accepting his honor as RCC Foundation Citizen of the Year, Lee said, “Awards are earned collectively, but given individually. No person could have been more blessed with better trustees. I owe a debt of thanks to all trustees past and present.”
J.C. Lamm of Rockingham worked closely with Lee at RCC, as Dean of Students for 17 years, and as a member of the Board of Trustees on which Lamm has served since 1982 until now, with the exception of a four-year hiatus. Lamm said he has been in Rockingham since 1965, when he moved to Richmond County to help found the college.
“Mr. Lee was a man of compassion and conviction,” said Lamm on Monday. “He was dedicated to education because he grew up in the mountains in the ’30s and ’40s. He saw what the Depression did to people and he really wanted them to have an education. He felt strongly for the little man; he was very supportive of people who didn’t have a lot. I’m sure his time in the Legislature was devoted to education … .”
Lamm said Lee made sure his family all received an education, and currently has a grandchild in his second year at a Coast Guard academy, and another grandchild is studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lamm believes Lee saw education as a means for people to help themselves better their lives.
“He loved history,” said Lamm about his late friend. “He could talk all day about history. He was very witty. I used to go back to the mountains once a year for two to three days and visit the places where he grew up.”
Richmond Community College’s President Dale McInnis was close friends with Lee and saw him as a mentor. He said Lee had a lasting impact on him.
“This is the end of an era,” said McInnis. “Mr. Lee was a great man from the Greatest Generation. Throughout our college’s 48-year history, Mr. Lee is the only unbroken thread, connecting us to our roots and focusing us on our mission. He liked to quote his friend Terry Sanford that RCC is the ‘people’s college,’ and that we have a special trust and responsibility to the people of Richmond and Scotland Counties.
“On a personal note, I feel as if I lost a member of my own family. I will always be indebted to Mr. Lee for the patience, faith, and friendship he showed me, and for the opportunity to be here at RCC. He was a great leader and mentor, and our college will miss him deeply,” McInnis said.
Lee will be missed by those who practiced law with him, too, and his friends said he brought smiles to their faces regularly.
“I remember him as just a whole lot of fun,” said Joe Davis, who practiced law with Lee for more than 40 years. “He was my law partner. He was always good company. He never lost his common touch. We laughed a lot together.”
A Memorial Service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at First Presbyterian Church, 904 Fayetteville Road, Rockingham.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.