Giving Creatively

Des Lee's vision of collaboration among major institutions benefits the entire St. Louis community.

E. Desmond Lee, B.S.B.A. '40

When the Riverfront Times, tart doyenne of St. Louis' alternative newspapers, uncharacteristically added "Philanthropist" to its 1999 "Bests" list, something was up.

Especially since pin-striped Worth magazine had already placed this very same Good Samaritan—and only St. Louisan—on its 1999 list of "The 100 Most Generous Americans."

Say hello to E. Desmond Lee, B.S.B.A. '40—known to virtually everyone as "Des." A retired wire-bender, Des is having the time of his life giving away multimillions of his own hard-earned dollars to help make St. Louis a better place to live, especially for its disadvantaged kids.

That's his goal. But the RFT was knocked out by his methods:

"… Tied to the money he gives are incentives toward cooperation among [St. Louis'] major institutions, with the stipulation that those institutions involve themselves positively in the community

"What it says about Des Lee is that giving can be a creative art."

All Des says is, "I'm a collaborator—I bring people together."

Among those he has brought together are the Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and its Community Music School, Saint Louis Zoo, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, United Way, Variety Club, Webster University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and, of course, Washington University.

Further, tied to UMSL and WU are a total of 19 Des Lee professorships to date, each accompanied by a scholarship fund—all "endowed in perpetuity, otherwise they're useless," Des is quick to point out.

The Des Lee professorships stipulate that their holders spend up to 50 percent of their time on projects that directly benefit the community.

They also epitomize what's now called the Des Lee Collaborative Vision.

In 1997, for example, painter and sculptor W. Patrick Schuchard was named the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration in the School of Art. (The professorship has a five-year run in the art school; it will then rotate to another of WU's eight schools for the next five years.)

Schuchard, experienced in redevelopment projects, then led the rehab of a WU-owned 1907 warehouse into University Lofts. The 8-story building contains loft-style apartments (70 percent are rented to WU alumni artists at affordable rates) with space for a gallery (named for Des), restaurant, and visiting artists in residence. Pundits consider the $5.6 million project, financed with public and private funds, an important step in downtown St. Louis' revitalization.

"I'm in the business of making a difference in the community," Des says. Philanthropy is his second career, and he works hard at it.

In 1998, Des established the E. Desmond Lee Professorship for Collaboration of the Arts to encourage synergy among St. Louis arts and educational institutions, especially the Saint Louis Art Museum—which, as we all know, had its beginnings in the WU Gallery of Art. Mark S. Weil—professor of art history and archaeology, and director of the Gallery of Art and of the Visual Arts and Design Center—holds that professorship.

In 1999, Larry E. Davis of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work became WU's first E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity, established by Des to foster racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in St. Louis.

"I'm in the business of making a difference in the community," Des says.

Philanthropy is his second career, and he works hard at it. So far, he's given away about $40.5 million. It's hard to keep track, though, because he keeps thinking up new projects.

He used the same imagination, inventiveness, and elbow grease, starting in the Depression, to grow a wire frame used to force a crease into work pants drying on a clothesline (remember those?) into the Lee/Rowan Company, a multimillion-dollar closet accessories manufacturer capable of running 25 miles of wire shelving a day (motto: "Where America Gets Organized"). He sold Lee/Rowan in 1993 to what's now Newell-Rubbermaid for the money that's the root of all his philanthropy.

At 80-something, Des Lee looks like a really smart semiretired cowboy—tall, rangy, down to earth, with a good sense of humor, and shrewd intelligent eyes. Lee/Rowan employees liked him a lot, and it's easy to understand why—when you talk, he really listens. Though he is plainspoken, you quickly sense his bone-deep kindness.

For his efforts, Des has more awards—local, regional, and national—than he can count. He even wears one on his wrist—a WU Sports Hall of Fame watch.

He attended WU on a full athletic scholarship, earning letters in track and basketball. He was captain of the basketball team, a high-scoring team center, and made all-Missouri Valley Conference.

He also chaired the Campus Y, was president of his fraternity, and was elected to Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society.

"I've had one job or another since I was 10 years old," he explains.

He says he learned the value of hard work, education, community service, and regard for others at home.

His father was president of Christian College (now Columbia College) in Columbia, Missouri. That's where Des early went to work cutting grass and doing other jobs around campus. High school pal Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder, was a lifelong friend from whom, Des says, he learned a lot and who later became a big customer of Lee/Rowan products.

Des was glad to receive the scholarship. "In those days," he says, "college presidents didn't make much, and that scholarship made all the difference."

It also meant that his father could bank the $2,500 Des' college education would have cost. In 1939 he could then lend that same $2,500 to Des and good friend Jimmy Rowan, A.B. '38, to start a business based on the wire pants-creaser that Jimmy's dad had invented. Fathers and sons soon went to work—with Des as designer and toolmaker—along with 10 unskilled laborers in a ramshackle downtown St. Louis warehouse.

World War II was a defining experience for Des. Both he and Jimmy were drafted, leaving their fathers to run the business. After Officers Training School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Des was assigned command of a troop of black soldiers—the usual practice in the then-segregated Armed Forces.

"I saw the tremendous racial discrimination in the South," he says. "The soldiers were treated terribly; it made a lifetime impression on me."

He took his troops overseas and later took part as a combat engineer in the Allied invasion of Italy, one of the bloodiest offensives of the war.

He says, "I think the service had a lot to do with my feelings about the inner city and disadvantaged people because I saw what we were fighting for over there, and I thought, 'If I ever get out of this thing, I want to do something worthwhile with my life.' I'm just very fortunate to have had a good education and reasonable success in business."

Meanwhile, back at the Riverfront Times: "[Des] understands that educational and cultural institutions do not function without philanthropy."

Well, that's part of it. Or as Des puts it: "The fun is in doing it, not having done it."

Right now he's working on getting the steam locomotive and cars he's restored set up and running on the roof of downtown's zany City Museum—the management there really understands his kind of imagination.

—M.M. Costantin