History of Ben Lee
A Life of service
For decades, Ben Lee worked quietly and tirelessly behind the scenes to improve the lives of thousands.
by Mary Lynn McCauley
Ben Lee, his wife and two sons are a family of builders. No, they don't run a construction company...although Ben did build their modest bungalow in Rutland. They are community builders -- interested in making their neighbourhood a better place to live and willing to do whatever is required to make that a reality. They walk the talk.
Respect, hard work and a positive attitude are important family values.
Material possessions are not as important as their humble home, made brilliant with meticulously kept gardens, testifies.
Most people in Kelowna have been touched -- either directly or indirectly -- by this close knit family. Ben, who retired from his teaching job in 1985, taught for 34 years in this school district. He served just over 23 years as a city councillor, from 1973 - 1996. His community involvement would astound even the most industrious volunteers.
This practical, hardworking man has spent almost half a century doing community service. From his early days as a member of the Rutland United Hospital Board, the Kelowna Art Gallery, sports groups, Citizenship Court and with schools and local organizations in planning and preparing multicultural events.
He's been a member, director, or chair of a myriad of committees, including those for the Athans Pool, Rutland Arena and Centennial Park.
He was a founding member and first president of the Kelowna Multicultural Society; chairman and founding member of Kelowna Folk fest Committee, the annual July 1 Canada Day celebration; director and president of the Rutland Park Society; president and founder of the Kelowna Chinese Cultural Society. His most recent projects are chairman of the Friends of Ben Lee Park Society, treasurer of the Rutland Hospital Auxiliary to the KGH Foundation and a member of the newly formed Organized Crime Agency of British Columbia, an organization dedicated to eliminating organized crime in this province.
"My Dad is a jack of all trades," Ben's oldest son, John, says, "He built our house. He catered fund-raising meals. He and Mom made us a skating rink in the backyard every winter. He takes on many projects."
John and younger sibling Robert, who lives in Coquitlam, naturally fell into the busy lifestyle. "My brother and I always had something to do," John says.
"It was definitely a busy childhood, but it was a happy one," Robert Says. "Dad worked for others but he always had time for us."
John remembers his Dad helping out with all their school projects, "He never missed anything."
Joyce sits quietly on the couch listening and smiling while her son and husband talk. Seemingly shy, Joyce exudes an aura of extreme competence. She typifies the saying: Behind every successful man is a strong woman. Unlike Ben, Joyce has a passionate hobby: she's an avid gardener. (Ben tried fishing but says he didn't have the patience). She grows flowers in her greenhouse and at one time sold bedding plants. Just recently she started doing dried flower arrangements, which she sells for fund-raising endeavours. As Ben's chief organizer, Joyce has also spent countless hours volunteering alongside her husband.
They currently volunteer for the Rutland Hospital Auxiliary to the KGH foundation. "He's the treasurer and Dad doesn't even have an accounting background," John interjects.
"We donated $156,000 to the KGH Foundation Last year," Ben says proudly.
Ben and Joyce met in Victoria while Ben was completing his teaching certificate. After a long distance romance (Ben lived in Armstrong), they married and settled in Kelowna in 1951 because Ben had a teaching job. "I was the first male Chinese teacher in BC," he says. Ben and Joyce, whose grandparents came here from China, are proud of their heritage. They are not bitter despite the Canadian government's poor treatment of the Chinese in the early part of this century.
Chinese only got the right to vote after women and the government didn't allow Chinese to go into many professions. There was also the Exclusion Act. "Granddad had to pay a $500 head tax to bring Grandma over from China after establishing himself as a market gardener in Armstrong.
"I look at (visible minorities) in a positive way. We are a country of diversity. We should recognize these individuals and groups because their backgrounds make such a tremendous difference in our country.
That's why Canada is a mosaic and the United States is a melting pot, where everybody just blends together," Ben says.
Mayor Walter Gray says Ben is a truly remarkable individual who doesn't have a selfish bone in his body. "He dedicates himself totally to community and to helping others."
"He's been characterized and nicknamed as mayor of Rutland and it's meant as a flattering comment. But it's totally at odds of who he really is because he thinks of the whole city and region," Gray says.
Former mayor Jim Stuart, with whom Ben worked for 20 years, says he has the greatest admiration for the Lee family. Although the two didn't always agree on how to get somewhere, "we always agreed we should get there," Stuart says.
"Although they don't have an official family motto, Ben remembers his parents telling him, "You've got to participate", and "Help your brothers and sisters."
They also told their children -- Ben has 10 siblings -- hard work never hurt anyone, he explains.
Joyce, who has 11 siblings, says respect for elders was tantamount.
In Chinese culture you always refer to your elders in a respectful way, even older brothers and sisters.
Ben says he likes to work in the background because he can get more done. But he's had to be more front and center recently as he embarks on his biggest project -- Ben Lee Park. The 18-acre green space, bordered by Leathead, Houghton, McPhee and Franklyn Roads is in the heart of Rutland. It will offer Kelowna a children's' water park, tennis courts, skateboard park, linear trails, a multipurpose court, open space and a native plant demonstration garden.
Ben seems undaunted by the task ahead. Most people his age are resting and traveling. Problem is nobody knows his age and Ben likes to keep it a secret.
"He's really ageless," Mayor Gray says. "We all try to guess his age and I must confess I saw Ben take out his wallet once and I tried to look at it -- not at how much money he had but to try and see the birth date on his driver's license," he laughs.
As copied from Okanagan Life's Top 25 People of the Century (Okanagan)
20. Ben Wah Lee
When Ben Lee was born, in him was the determination of his grandparents who had come to Canada from China. He took a bold step in choosing to become a teacher and become the first male Chinese teacher in BC. He taught in the Kelowna Public School System for 34 years, retiring in 1985. He was also a Kelowna City Councillor for 23 years until 1996, during which time he was nicknamed the Mayor of Rutland, where he and his wife Joyce lived.
A founding member of the Kelowna Folkfest Committee, Ben worked tirelessly to promote understanding and tolerance of minority groups. In honour of his outstanding contributions, the City established the Ben Lee Park. The 18 acre park will serve the community as its namesake has done for many years.
Located In The Heart of Rutland, Kelowna, BC.