Celebrating Mrs. Lillian Lee


By Laurie Paolicelli

Mrs. Lillian Wesley Lee.

In his autobiography, Dean Smith wrote about the quest of a dream. “It is about the thousands of small unselfish acts, the sacrifices on the part of the players that result in team building.”

The same sentiment could be used to describe the best parts and people of Chapel Hill. Mrs. Lillian Lee, for instance.

Lillian Lee is one of those guardians of the Chapel Hill community who puts her arms around the town’s soul, holds its close and tries to protect it. And she’s done an amazing job.

In 1965, during her husband Howard’s graduate school years, she joined a colleague — Nathalie Harrison — to establish the first hospital school at NC Memorial under the auspices of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. Today, the hospital school is not only a significant institution serving students from across North Carolina, it’s now a model for North Carolina hospitals, and it’s become one for other states, as well. Thousands of children continue to benefit from the UNC Hospital School each year. After this remarkable success, Lillian spent many years as a counselor and administrator in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Lillian Lee early in her career teaching at UNC Hospitals.

Her life appears to be one unselfish act after another. Lillian was central to developing and nurturing the MLK Celebration Dinner, which has awarded hundreds of scholarships supporting students enrolled in college and universities.

She was the first person of color to serve on the Orange County Board of Election, which inspired and enhanced minority voter registration, resulting in the first woman Orange County Commissioner, Flo Garrett, and the first Black Orange County Commissioner, Richard Whitted.

A survivor of breast cancer, Lillian takes every opportunity to help others find ways to support those in need of care. For those with family, friends or neighbors who are battling with a breast cancer diagnosis, Lillian says it’s the little things that help patients through the dark days of treatment.

“Early detection is essential,” Lee says. “We have to help more women have access to exams,”

Scott Williams.

Scott Williams is a retired professional basketball player who played for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under Dean Smith. He says that Lillian Lee was instrumental in giving him hope and a sense of community.

Williams’ parents died on October 15, 1987, when his father shot and killed his mother in their garage, then turned the gun on himself. He was 19 years old, a mere sophomore.

In Scott William’s book, Through the Fire: A Memoir of Trauma and Loss, Basketball and Triumph, he expresses gratitude for the Chapel Hill community that helped him get through one of the hardest days of his life. Along with Tar Heel Basketball Coach Bill Guthridge, Lillian Lee flew back to Los Angeles with him to attend the funeral, never letting go of his hand.

“Mrs. Lee was always there for me,” he says.

The late Reverend Robert Seymour with Lillian Lee, longtime member of Binkley Baptist Church.

Lillian Wesley Lee, one of eleven children, was born and raised in Savannah where she met her husband Howard. She graduated from Savannah State in 1961. Before moving to Chapel Hill with her husband she was a teacher. In 1969, Howard became mayor of Chapel Hill, the first African American to be elected in a predominantly white city, and was elected to two terms in the NC Senate.

Early in her career Lillian became a fierce advocate for affordable housing in Chapel Hill. Says Delores Bailey of Chapel Hill Empowerment: “Mrs. Lee has said that one of the saddest realizations she made as a teacher was that young students didn’t have a chance in life if they didn’t have a home. Everything starts there. That is when Mrs. Lee became an advocate for housing for the marginalized and those who fell on hard times.”

Delores Baily of Empowerment. Photo Courtesy of News & Observer.

Lillian Lee considers the establishment of the UNC Hospital School and her tenure at CHHS her most important contributions. At the same time, she and her husband emphasize that they were trail blazers, changing the community when they decided to live on the east side of Chapel Hill in the Ephesus Church-Tinkerbell neighborhood, away from what, at the time, was considered the Black district.

Join us in celebrating Lillian Lee’s years of commitment to her faith, education, and affordable housing on May 20, 2023. There will be a silent auction, food, wine, and dancing in order to raise the final 5% of the funds for the PEACH Apartments (Pine Knolls Affordable Community Housing), downtown Chapel Hill’s newest affordable housing rental apartments for essential workers. Learn more about the apartments at www.peachapartments.org.

And learn more about the celebration at Celebration of Mrs. Lillian Lee — PEACH Apartments.

Lillian Lee embodies the spirit of those who came to Chapel Hill to give back so that a just society could be a reality for all of us.

Ms. Lillian Lee paying it forward to the next generation.

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1 Comment on "Celebrating Mrs. Lillian Lee"

  1. Robert Lewis | May 19, 2023 at 9:10 am | Reply

    All we can say is..What A Woman!

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