Larry Lee, a sensitive leader with extraordinary character
Savannah and the Downtown Neighborhood Association lost an old school gentleman last Thursday. Lawrence B. Lee, “Larry”, was that rare persuasive leader with genuine concern for others. He left us unexpectedly, leaving a big hole in our hearts and in the fabric of our City. Larry also left a unique legacy of service and achievement, underpinned always by his personal kindness.
Larry’s day job was a heavy full time responsibility. An attorney, he served the US Department of Justice with distinction for over 24 years, rising through the ranks to be the Assistant US Attorney for the Southeastern District of Georgia. Representing the United States here, he defended taxpayers against hundreds of spurious claims, including medical malpractice, sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful death. Attorney General Janet Reno honored his achievement with the prestigious Department of Justice Director’s Award.
This outstanding career would be more than enough for most. But Larry was unlike anyone we’ve known: a volunteer community leader with enormous interests, energy and compassion. Working in Atlanta in the 70s, he founded a radio station, “Radio Free Georgia.” He had his own program there, dedicated to bluegrass music. The station still exists today.
After moving to Savannah, two guiding passions motivated Larry’s volunteer service: PROTECT Savannah’s historic environment, and SUPPORT Savannah’s less fortunate citizens. He fought hard for these causes, but always as a true gentleman. Larry had no personal enemies, only issues to resolve. And resolve them he did!
Savannah, and especially the Savannah Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), were the principal beneficiaries of Larry’s volunteer leadership. Joining DNA soon after it was created, he helped DNA President Jim Williams launch the nationally acclaimed Holiday Tour of Homes more than 40 years ago. He went on to serve multiple terms as the DNA’s President. He did not seek the spotlight, but always answered the call when needed.
In 1993 graffiti was a growing issue downtown. Larry worked with the city to set up effective cleanup teams who continue to keep this scourge under control today.
Also in the early 90s downtown residents felt SCAD was aggressively expanding its presence without following the City’s planning procedures. As DNA President, Larry pressed SCAD to play by the rules. When the New York School of Visual Arts tried to establish a competing branch in Savannah, SCAD fought back hard. They surreptitiously photographed meetings to support a lawsuit alleging an illegal conspiracy. Targets included Pat Conroy and Larry Lee. A SCAD photographer tried to implicate Larry in the supposed conspiracy by photographing him conferring with City Manager Don Mondonsa before a zoning hearing. SCAD eventually settled the suit and the NY School left town. In later years Larry was pleased by the growing cooperation between SCAD and downtown residents. He especially appreciated SCAD’s recent effort to reduce the downtown impact made by SCAD’s large white buses.
While he was always the pre-eminent leader in DNA, Larry worked to strengthen all of the organizations protecting historic Savannah. During a 1996-97 tour as Chairman of the Historic Savannah Foundation, he directed the restoration of the 1818 Abraham Sheftall House, moved from Elbert Square, to be the York Street Headquarters for the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Larry worked tirelessly with City officials and DNA to enshrine the “Chadbourne Guidelines” for preservation of the Historic District in the City Code, and arranged for Savannah to host the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual convention in 1998.
On the Board of the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority during the 90s, Larry was instrumental in the revitalization of Broughton Street.
As an advisor to the Savannah Tree Foundation, he helped produce their influential “State of the Trees” reports.
In Larry’s view, caring for Savannah’s humanitarian needs was as important preserving its historic character. When the great recession hit hard in 2008, he convinced DNA to focus annual financial grants on non-profits providing food and shelter for the homeless. He was continuing this work recently as Director of the Thomas Square Food Pantry and Chairman of the Chatham Savannah Homeless Authority. At the Homeless Authority, Larry fought to maintain a viable program and resisted efforts by City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to defund the authority during a budgetary shortfall.
Arguably, Larry’s most significant contribution to Savannah stemmed from his service on the Historic District Ordinance Review Committee. In 2006, after HSF, DNA and the Beehive Foundation sued the City to stop construction exceeding height limits in the Historic District, the City Council formed a committee to review all the standards. Larry worked relentlessly with others on the committee to clarify and tighten the standards. Thanks to their efforts, Savannah now has a strong City ordinance which safeguards our historic environment. Although its impact is sometimes weakened by variances and ad hoc exceptions favoring non-conforming development, it remains the best tool citizens have to save Savannah’s historic ambiance for future residents and visitors.
Larry is at rest now. But our hearts are heavy. We hope he is cruising peacefully in his beloved sailboat, “The Annabel Lee.” We will all miss him. All of Savannah owes him an enormous debt of gratitude.