In a busy life of professional involvement and community service Donald Lee in a sense had three careers: for 28 years he was a barrister and solicitor in general practice in Lower Hutt. Concurrent with legal practice, Don served in local government for 18 years in a variety of roles. And finally, after all that, he spent a decade with New Zealand Post.
Don Lee was born in Wellington in 1933 but grew up in Palmerston North after his father was “man-powered” there in 1940. He played rugby at school, was a good swimmer and was involved in surf lifesaving at Himatangi beach, an interest he carried on at Lyall Bay when he came to Wellington in 1952 to study law at Victoria University. He played the violin and in his teen years was part of a dance band – called the “Sundowners Hoedown String Ensemble” – that played around the towns of Manawatu.
In a speech presented to the Probus club in 2007 Don said he was “blessed” with good parents. “From my father came the attitude that to work hard will lead you to success, and from my mother, to take your opportunities, use your flair and look for the unexpected.”
These aphorisms were followed assiduously – he became dux of Marist High School in Palmerston North in 1951, studied successfully for the law while working as a law clerk with a Petone law firm (Rowse Rouse & Wood, later Rowse Partners) and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1958. On his admission to the bar, with the assistance of John Foot, he set up the Lower Hutt office of D M Findlay Foot & Lee in 1958. Don was later joined in Lower Hutt by Denis Foot, the latter later moving to Wellington on his father’s retirement.
In uncertain economic times, Don Lee said he would take a bag of working clothes to the office each day so he could “seagull” (work as a casual stevedore) on the Wellington waterfront between 6pm and 9pm.
Don Lee was joined in partnership by Brian Boyer, in 1975, the firm becoming Lee & Boyer. When the partnership merged with Gibson Sheat in 1985 the practice consisted of two partners and two staff solicitors.
Brian Boyer says Don Lee was an enormously talented man. “He was bright, very capable and a little eccentric. Sometimes, other lawyers found him difficult but that was because he demanded of them the high standards that he set himself. He was ‘old school’ in that way – when he gave an undertaking nothing would take precedence over it. It was what held the profession together, he said.
Brian Boyer came to work with Don as a law clerk in 1973. “At the interview he asked just three questions: what school did I go to (he meant was I a Catholic), when could I start, and what did other firms pay young guys like me. When it came to my first pay he looked at the cheque and said he couldn’t pay me that, it was too low. He converted the gross amount to net and so I became the highest paid law clerk in Wellington! When I thanked him profusely he just said ‘you’ll be in the same position one day’.
“When I joined in partnership we had to apply to the High Court because I had not been practising long enough. I was a partner in a law firm when I was 25 – not because I was clever but just because of Don.”
In the meantime, Don Lee had become a Lower Hutt city councillor. He was first elected in 1965 and remained on the council until 1983. He was very good at administration, his wife Pat Lee says, a very efficient man. “He also loved an argument,” she says. “He loved a wordy battle!” These are no doubt some of the traits that led to his success in local body politics.
Former Hutt City Councillor, John Seddon, who was elected the same year as Don in 1965, was a political opponent but says he and Don worked well together.
“We disagreed in a number of areas and we used to spar and debate with each other but we still got on very well… He was an interesting person and a good councillor.
“I was impressed with him – he always kept his word.”
Among numerous roles as a councillor. Don chaired both the works and the parks committees, each for six years, was an elected member of the Hutt Valley Energy Board for 15 years and its chair from 1980 to 1983, an executive member of the Natural Gas Association for three years, an appointee on the Hutt Valley Drainage Board (nine years), Wellington Regional Licensing Committee (three years), District Roads Council (six years). He was a foundation member of the Wellington Regional Council (1980-83), and chairman of the Regional Civil Defence Committee and regional controller of civil defence.
Don Lee retired from legal practice in 1985. It was not long, however, before he started a third career as company secretary and corporate solicitor for New Zealand Post during the time of its transformation into a state-owned-enterprise. He worked in this position until 1995 when he became the general manager risk management for NZ Post until his retirement.
While Don worked hard, his family was very important to him. He and Pat met at the High Court in Stout Street in the early 1950s. Pat was a typist there having moved from working for the Department of Justice in her home-town of Greymouth. As a law clerk Don visited the High Court frequently and they got to know each other. While both came from relatively small families, between them they have produced a fairly large one – 15 children! There are also 33 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In the Probus club speech quoted earlier, Don said Pat was the most important part of his life. “We have many children and many grandchildren, all of whom we are very proud. God willing we shall celebrate 50 years of marriage with our golden wedding in December 2008.”
Don and Pat Lee managed that. Don died on 29 May 2010.
This obituary was first published in Council Brief, July 2010.