One of the long-term projects I’m involved with is a chronicle of modern toolmakers, which Konrad Sauer, Narayan Nayar and I are hoping to publish one day. While that chronicle is still off in the future, the first thing we did after hatching the idea was to arrange a meeting with Leonard Lee, the founder of Lee Valley Tools.
And so, in December 2014 the three of us traveled to Ottawa, where his son Robin Lee graciously arranged time for us to sit and speak with his father.
I don’t mean to tease anyone hungry – and you should be hungry – to hear about the history and stories we recorded that day. I do want to explain, though, why I was so moved today to hear that a man I’d met only briefly, in the twilight of his life, had passed from this mortal coil.
And I was moved.
I do not think I’m easily impressed, or overly free with my admiration. But while Mr. Lee had earned my admiration long before I met him, it increased exponentially after a few hours in a room with him.
I found him inspiring (and I do not use that word lightly – if ever) not just for his accomplishments and his legacy – impressive though both are. What I was most struck by was his way of being – even as his mental and physical health were showing concessions to age.
He was obviously, and visibly, quite proud of his company and his family. But somehow he exuded that pride while at the same time was absolutely and unceremoniously humble about both – as though he’d simply been the man who was standing in the right place when the doors to the treasure chamber happened to open up.
In an era when it seems everyone yearns for celebrity and attention for mundane reasons, he seemed unconcerned with credit or attention. He was proud of Lee Valley, but not proud for it. And that distinction, it seems, is in short supply these days.
Every Lee Valley employee, every Lee family member and friend that we met were universal in their absolute respect and affection for Mr. Lee. Every one of them referred to him as “Mr.” Lee, and on every person’s lips that title seemed to convey an almost sacred respect.
Mr. Lee left behind a company, a family – a legacy – that is noteworthy, impressive and historic. But more than that, he left behind an indelible and obvious trail of influence on the people he interacted with – even if they met him only for a brief time, and even if (like me) they tend too much toward cynicism and disdain for much of humanity.
The Lee family – and the Lee Valley family – both have my most sincere and heartfelt condolences on their loss.
— Raney Nelson