Ben Lee, an unassuming politician who received the City of Kelowna’s highest honour, is being remembered as an advocate for multiculturalism and a particular champion for Rutland interests.
Lee, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died Sunday. He was 86.
A teacher for nearly 40 years, Lee was also a Kelowna city councillor from 1973 to 1996.
“He was probably the most honourable politician that I’ve ever met,” Sharron Simpson, who served on council with Lee for seven years, said Monday.
“Ben would never go to lunch with a developer or let himself be swayed by anything like that,” Simpson said. “He’d do his homework, go through all the reports and simply make his decisions based on what he believed was best for the community.”
Lee got interested in politics as a way of trying to ensure his longtime community of Rutland was treated fairly after the provincial government ordered its amalgamation into Kelowna in 1973.
“He was called the mayor of Rutland, and that really reflects the way he was revered in that
community,” said former Kelowna mayor Walter Gray, who also served on council with Lee in the 1980s.
“Ben was one of the most modest people you could imagine, but he was also tremendously diligent and a hard worker on whatever project he attached his name to,” Gray said.
At Monday’s council meeting, Mayor Colin Basran described Lee as representing “the epitome of community service.”
Basran mentioned such things as Lee’s role in founding the Kelowna Multicultural Society, organizing the Folkfest celebration of ethnic diversity held on Canada Day, and championing issues as diverse as heritage protection, park creation and the Rutland hospital auxiliary.
“A teacher, a coach, a councillor and a committed family man, Ben was an exceptional person who has left an indelible mark on our city,” Basran said.
After he retired from politics in 1996, the city said it would name a new eight-hectare park after him in Rutland. Ben Lee Park opened in 2001.
That same year, he also received the Freedom of the City award, becoming one of 17 people to have received the municipality’s highest honour.
Lee and his wife Joyce had two sons. Despite the honours and accolades, Lee was a down-to-earth person with a gentle nature, said Simpson, a longtime family friend as well as a former council colleague.
“A lot of things can happen on council, but he never held a grudge,” Simpson said. “He was such a remarkably humble and gracious man. I’ll miss him terribly.”
A public celebration of Lee’s life will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday in the Rutland park that bears his name.