Community Government

Terry Lee succumbs to sudden illness while visiting Greek isle

Posted on June 10th, 2024 By:

Gig Harbor lost a true statesman last week.

Terry Lee, who served the area in one capacity or another for 35 years, died of a sudden illness June 6 during a trip to Greece. He was 77.

Lee and his wife of 52 years, Donna, were a day away from returning from a 21-day Greek visit when Terry began feeling ill. He was admitted to a hospital on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he passed away five days later, said Steve Wilkin, husband of Terry’s sister Jeni.

Terry, the eldest of Ethel Miller’s four children, grew up in University Place and graduated from Curtis High School in 1964. He became familiar with the Gig Harbor area while enjoying the family cabin on Henderson Bay.

Terry Lee speaking during an event.

Terry Lee speaking during an event. Photo by Robyn Denson

Though it’d been several years since he’d run 21 marathons and twice climbed Mount Rainier, Lee remained the picture of health. Tall. Tanned from frequent journeys south. Crowned by thick, white hair. His demise came as a shock to many.

Lee worked as an electrician for local construction companies for 29 years. He managed the electrical, security, fire alarm and phone systems on large projects, including Gig Harbor Civic Center, Peninsula Light’s facility, Kopachuck Middle School, Discovery and Minter Creek elementary schools and Bremerton High School.

10 years on Planning Commission

He served on the first county Land Use Advisory Committee, beginning in 1983. Eight years later he joined the county Planning Commission and represented Gig Harbor for 10 years. After reaching his term limit, he ran for the Pierce County Council in 2001 and served eight years.

His planned retirement was interrupted when PenMet Parks came calling. He served the district as executive director for another eight years.

A four-year gap separated Lee’s eight years as the county’s District 7 representative with Derek Young’s eight years in the seat. Staff remembered, and adored, Lee.

“They considered him somebody great to work with,” said Young, now interim executive director of Washington State Association of Counties. “They appreciated his attention to the job. Terry was a worker. You can’t always say that about a lot of elected officials. A lot of good was done when he was there.”

Terry Lee hamming it up while with PenMet Parks.

Terry Lee hamming it up while with PenMet Parks. Photo courtesy of Macaroni Kids Gig Harbor

Lee took the lead on land use and environmental issues, Young said. He was also largely responsible for transferring Gig Harbor-area properties intended for parks but never developed to the new PenMet Parks. One of his proudest moments was helping the county buy financially struggling Tacoma Narrows Airport from the city of Tacoma in 2008 and seeing it operate in the black.

“He was like a dog on a bone,” Young said.

Another major achievement was the Cushman Trail.

“He was there from the beginning to the end trying to get that thing going,” Young said. “If you don’t take those first steps, that trail doesn’t exist. I don’t know how many people realize how critical he was to that process.”

Not prone to dogma

Lee wasn’t driven by ego, nor did he bow to party politics.

“He didn’t run for office for personal ambition but to do good for the community that he loves,” Young said. “I remember him saying once, ‘How can you live here and not want to fight like hell for it?’”

If you didn’t see the ‘R’ behind Lee’s name, you wouldn’t’ know he was a Republican, Young said.

“He was always looking for solutions, he wasn’t led by dogma of any kind,” he said. “He was always looking for consensus. I worked mostly as a (Gig Harbor) city council member with him and it was always a pleasure to be working in the same room because you always felt like you’d get a solution with Terry in there. Plus, he was fun. He was just a real nice guy and fun to be around.”

An even temper helped Lee get things accomplished.

“I saw him get mad maybe once in 30 years,” brother-in-law Wilkin said. “He was always, ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.’ … He told me once that’s the one thing he’d like to be remembered for, he was a peacemaker.”

From left, County Councilwoman Robyn Denson, Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey and Terry Lee.

From left, County Councilwoman Robyn Denson, Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey and Terry Lee. Photo by Robyn Denson

Across the aisle

Robyn Denson, who like Young served on the Gig Harbor City Council before replacing him on the county council, said when she ran for both seats that Lee was one of her most important endorsements. The Republican Lee backed the Democrat Denson over GOP competitors because he believed she was the best candidate.

“He is so trusted in the community, and for many good reasons,” Denson said. “It meant a lot to me to have his support and trust and friendship. We continued to meet, and I really appreciated the opportunity to bounce ideas off of him, and I really appreciated his wisdom.”

Denson said she often heard Lee described as a true statesman.

“Terry was well known for being open-minded and thoughtful and being willing to work with everyone,” she said. “He was all about getting everything done for the community, and he sure did. He truly cared about people, particularly kids, and absolutely believed that giving kids positive and healthy things to do in the community was key to addressing so many issues now and into the future.”

Postpone that retirement

About the time Lee left the county, PenMet Parks was seeking a new executive director. Marc Connelly, who guided the district’s establishment during its first six years, was retiring.

PenMet’s top replacement fell through, and it wasn’t enthralled with the second choice. It needed to build relationships. It sought out the well-connected Lee.

“He had so many relationships already,” said Planning and Special Projects Manager Eric Guenther, one of PenMet’s first employees who worked there 17 years. “He rebuilt the school district relationship and Pierce County, everyone we needed there up and down the chain. And the community. The fire department. If you look at that period of time, we built relationships and agreements with all these organizations.”

Terry Lee, left, and Eric Guenther after new turfed infield was installed at Sehmel Homestead Park.

Terry Lee, left, and Eric Guenther after new turfed infield was installed at Sehmel Homestead Park. Photo courtesy of Eric Guenther

Lee, Guenther and Administrative Assistant Kim Hairston worked out of a little catering kitchen in Sehmel Homestead Park’s Volunteer Vern Pavilion.

“It was a real open environment, a real team effort, everybody working together complementing each other and a very respectful family atmosphere,” Guenther said. “Everyone was supplying their expertise with others supporting as needed, working through any issues together.”

Upon his retirement in 2018, Lee told the Peninsula Gateway: “I had a passion for the quality of life, the community spirit that exists on this side of the bridge. I wanted to be a part of the development, and the protection, of this area. The passion to serve the community has never left me.”

Respect and integrity

Lee’s hallmark was respect and integrity, said Guenther, who along with a few other former PenMet employees still got together monthly.

“God, that next one is going to be sad,” he said.

Lee, who had been prepared to retire before PenMet came courting, didn’t want a long-term contract.

“I really liked the job,” he said from Greece three weeks ago during an interview for a story about PenMet’s 20th anniversary. “I went a year and a year and a year and pretty soon it was eight years.”

Lee said he’s proud of the recreational programs PenMet established and relationships it developed, like with the city and county in developing the Cushman Trail and with the YMCA in helping to fund its swimming pool.

“Parks and recreation programs are critical to the quality of life in a community,” he said. “I used to comment that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. The ounce of prevention is the rec programs for the kids in the community.

Terry Lee as PenMet executive director.

Terry Lee as PenMet Parks executive director. Photo courtesy of Eric Guenther

“They keep them out from behind the 7-Eleven smoking cigarettes and whatever else. If you don’t have an ounce of prevention, the cure is juvenile detention in Pierce County. If it keeps kids on the right path, it saves the people a lot of money. We didn’t have that prior to the adoption and development of metropolitan park districts.”

PenMet Parks issued a statement that it “mourns the passing of Terry Lee. We honor his life, unwavering service, and his tremendous contributions to our community.”

Worked hard, played hard

Lee liked to get away, whether to a time share in Cabo San Lucas, a condo in Maui or a ski cabin in Packwood. He boated with friends in the San Juan Islands, and enjoyed taking annual family vacations, often to Lake Coeur d’Alene. Among many parties at the beach cabin was an annual Fourth of July bash to celebrate the birth of Terry and the nation.

“He was an easy-going guy that wanted everybody to get along, and was always up for a good party,” said Wilkin. “It’s going to be really weird not having him around. He was always the center of things, whether he wanted to be or not. He was the wisened statesman.”

Joining Lee on many of the exploits was Don Klemme. Klemme and wife Carolyn, Rick and Betsy Ellingson and the Lees vacationed at the ski cabin they owned for 31 years. They cruised together, on ships and Klemme’s boat. Rode bikes together, including the Seattle to Portland event. Ran races together. Celebrated anniversaries together.

“We just kind of clicked,” Don Klemme said. “The girls hit it off and the guys hit it off. We loved kids and doing vacations with kids. It was good. Nothing but fun. We were always doing something that was fun, and family-involved.

“He had a good, full life. I don’t think there’s anything (else) he’d say he’d like to do. He climbed Mount Rainier, ran a lot of marathons, rode a lot of bikes, we skied a lot together, vacations, just anything. We were always there for each other.

“He was just a great guy, always helpful and kind. We had a lot of fun.”