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Percy Maxim Lee a retrospective.

At the close of 2002, the League bid farewell to one of its extra-ordinary lights. Percy Maxim Lee served on the national board from 1944 to 1958, and LWVUS president for four terms (1950-58), she oversaw a period of incredible development. She created the Education Fund and The National Voter, inaugurated the first of the Presidential debates, and unified the local Leagues around a common purpose that still exists today in the League's By-Laws. During her presidency, the League more than doubled its membership reaching 120,000, and grew from 740 Leagues to over 1000 in the now 50 states and the District of Columbia. "Under Mrs. Lee's direction, the importance of the local Leagues as a source of 'grassroots' strength came to the forefront," noted Becky Cain, former LWVUS president.

The achievements are sufficient to mark Mrs. Lee's tenure as exceptional. But, as League president during the turbulent McCarthy era of the 50s, she also bequeathed us a unique legacy of advocacy. As the League's voice and the nation's conscience, Mrs. Lee testifed against Sen. Joseph McCarthy's abuse of congressional investigative powers at a Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights hearing in 1955.

I believe tolerance and respect for the opinions of others is being jeopardized by men and women whose instincts are worthily patriotic, but whose minds are apparently unwilling to accept the necessity for dissent within a democracy.

Concomitantly, she led the League in another vital effort--the "Freedom Agenda"--the League's program to remind Americans of the importance of maintaining our individual constitutional liberties. During this period, Mrs. Lee was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to sit on the bipartisan Public Advisory Board of the Foreign Operations Administration (FOA), a liaison between the public and the FOA.

Looking through the archives documenting Mrs. Lee's presidency, one is stunned by her energy, vision and determination, all enhanced by "her warmth, intelligence, humor and keen interest," as her daughter, Percy Lee Langstaff, noted at the memorial gathering of family and friends in December 2002. "She thought of new ways of doing old things ... But she had a stong sense of history and perspective."

Every facet of Mrs. Lee's life is reflected in the League archives. Yes, Percy Maxim Lee was the League president, but she also had a family--her husband and four children to whom she was dedicated. The League presidency required regular travel to Washington, DC, not to mention innumerable trips across the country. But she did not allow this to detract from her family commitments. Just as she challenged others to achieve, she challenged herself and her natural optimism prevailed throughout her life.

Speaking of family, Percy Maxim Lee leaves a family League history as well. Her mother, Mrs. Josephine Hamilton Maxim, was an early suffragist who helped organize the League in Connecticut and was the first president of the Hartford League. Mrs. Lee served as president of the LWV of Connecticut from 1941-49. Her daughter, Percy Lee Langstaff, followed in her footsteps and served as president of the Connecticut League from 1981-85.

Reviewing Mrs. Lee's accomplishments, one is struck by how much the challenges she, the League, the nation and the world faced during her tenure as president are still relevant to us today. In this vein, we continue to heed her words:

The League, in my view, is too valuable to the United States to allow it to lose its impact on individuals and public policy. Although I have been accused of naivete in my belief that the power of a democratic society rests with its citizens, I still hold to this vision as well as to the belief that the sum of its communities determines the quality of the nation. The League has a role to play of basic importance.

With poignancy, Mrs. Langstaff shared a recent memory of her mother: "She believed in citizen participation--in democracy. She really, really believed in it. She went into the hospital with an absentee ballot. in her hand.".

RELATED ARTICLE: Beyond the League, Percy Maxim Lee left her mark in the state of Connecticut where she was appointed by the Governor to serve on the State Library Commission, the Commission on the Status of Women, and The Clean Water Task Force. She was chairman of the Capitol Region Planning Agency in Hartford, president of the Farmington River Watershed Association and founder of The Farmington Land Trust. She also served on The Judicial Review Council.

Nationally, in addition to the activities during the period of her League presidency, Mrs. Lee was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Consumer Advisory Council in 1962, and subsequently appointed Chairman of the Council by President Lyndon B. Johnson. President Johnson later appointed her to the Public Land Law Review Commission.

Education played a prominent role in Mrs. Lee's life outside the League as well. She was founder of what is now the Renbrook School in West Hartford, CT; served on the Board of Trustees of the Putney School in Vermont; and for many years was Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Connecticut College in New London, CT. She held four honorary degrees: LLD from Rutgers University, Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and Cedar Crest College, and LHD from the University of Hartford.
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Author:Ponomareff, Shirley Tabata
Publication:National Voter
Date:May 1, 2003
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