Known as “Bill” or “Sonny” to friends, Mr. Lee grew up in Frederick and graduated from Lincoln High School before serving in the Navy. He earned a degree from Howard University and completed post-graduate work at University of Maryland and Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College). He then returned to Frederick where he raised a family and embarked on a life of teaching and community service.
I don’t have enough space in this column to list all the organizations that benefitted from Mr. Lee’s service, but at one time he estimated it to be in the ballpark of about 50 and included not only The Community Foundation of Frederick County but also Boy Scouts, Asbury United Methodist Church, Kiwanis, Hospice of Frederick County, Police Athletic League and United Way, to name just a few. After nearly 30 years working in the Frederick County School System, first as a physical education teacher and later as a principal, Mr. Lee retired in 1983.
In 2003, the Community Foundation recognized Mr. Lee as one of its first Wertheimer Fellows for Excellence in Volunteerism. He was honored for his years of service as a teacher, principal, city alderman, mentor, volunteer, churchgoer, nonprofit advocate, involved citizen and champion of local Black history. With his award, he established The William O. Lee Jr. and Family Endowment Fund. The fund provides both grants to nonprofit organizations that research and preserve Frederick County’s Black history, and scholarships to Frederick City graduates pursuing post-secondary education.
Mr. Lee passed away in 2004 and nearly two decades later, he’s still making an impact. Over the last few years, Mr. Lee’s fund has supported multiple projects at the African American Resources Cultural and Heritage Society (AARCH). One grant went toward preserving County Globe, an African American newspaper published between 1990 – 2005, and another grant supported the purchase and renewal of the organization’s first museum management software.
This year, the fund provided a grant to Lincoln Elementary School for a mural that illustrates its history of being the only school for Black children during segregation. In addition to supporting the work of local nonprofits, Mr. Lee’s fund has also provided college scholarships to seven students.
When he received his Wertheimer award, Mr. Lee told Frederick Magazine, “I think I’ve done some good. If I had my life to live over again, it would be the same. I’d still have Frederick in mind – to make it the best possible place for all of us.”
By his own account, Mr. Lee was just a citizen doing what he could to improve the lives of those living in his community. But his dedication to making Frederick a wonderful place to live and play, and his commitment to understanding and preserving local Black history, exemplifies a remarkable man who will continue to make a difference in the lives of those who call Frederick home for generations to come.
* This was published in The Frederick News-Post on Feb. 27, 2023.