Frederic P. Lee 1893 - 1968
by Henry T. Skinner, Director U.S. National Arboretum
His many friends of the American Rhododendron Society will have been saddened by notice of the death of Frederic P. Lee which appeared in a footnote of the last Bulletin. His death occurred on October 2, 1968, following a heart attack, at his home in Bethesda, Maryland.
A charter member of the Society's Middle Atlantic Chapter, an ardent grower of rhododendrons and azaleas in a beautiful, shady garden of the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and a periodic contributor to the pages of the Quarterly Bulletin, Fred Lee may have become best known in rhododendron circles for authorship of his internationally esteemed Azalea Book which, after three editions, remains unlikely to be superseded for many years.
Born in Lincoln Nebraska, but raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, he majored in philosophy at Hamilton College at Clinton, New York, and studied law at Columbia University before coming to Washington in 1919. He soon became a well known figure in the Washington scene, serving for eleven years as Legislative Counsel to the House and the U.S. Senate, and as special counsel to the Secretary of Agriculture, before entering private practice, latterly in the firm of Lee, Toomey and Kent. A member of the bars of New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the Supreme Court, Fred Lee also taught constitutional law and political science in several universities. In the course of his government service, he passed on legal aspects of the Plant Patent Bill which became law in 1930 and on the Bill for Establishment of the United States National Arboretum. It is unlikely that he could have imagined then, in 1927, that he was to serve as Chairman of the Advisory Council of this same institution for the last 22 years of his life. Beyond this he was a Trustee of two noted educational institutions and an officer of numerous civic organizations, but beyond this, again, was his intense and constant interest in horticulture and in plants.
When once asked to reconcile these diverse interests, Fred replied with typically quiet and wry humor: "Well, I have always felt a little in debt to plants. You see, as a boy in Rutherford, New Jersey, I used to take walks in the Hackensack Meadows, identifying plants. Later, in Columbia Law School, I took Real Property under Professor Abbott, a very brilliant man, who spent his weekends taking botany walks. I wasn't doing very well until I was able to tell him one day that Turks Cap lily can be found in the Jersey meadows. That's how I passed Real Property."
The plant love was there, but it may well have been a Turks Cap lily which carried Fred's later interest to true lilies of all types, to plantain lilies, daffodils, thalictrums, Chugai azaleas, Glenn Dale azaleas, and to the many other plants which he grew, studied, and so accurately described for us in the ARS Bulletin or in the American Horticultural Magazine. He served as editorial adviser for this latter magazine and as officer and legal advisor to the American Horticultural Society for 20 years or more. He felt that plant beauty could contribute much to a better world, and he respected plants for their contribution to man's welfare. As he once tersely put it: "Sometimes they get bugs and sometimes they die, but they do it with their mouth shut."
His work and his broad interests drew many honors for him, civic honors and horticultural honors, which included our own Society's Gold Medal. These, undoubtedly, brought pleasure. Yet, knowing the characteristics of this accomplished, but unassuming gentleman, we are left with no doubt that the source of his greatest satisfaction lay with the simple acceptance by others of his contributions or of his assistance in many areas, but especially with plants and with his favorite azaleas.
Fred Lee will be remembered with esteem and with affection by a host of friends in many walks of life.