Whether it was a few thousand dollars for a program to buy back guns or millions to build a chapel at Seattle University, Rhoady Lee Jr., gave freely of his money and time.

Share story

Ask him how he was doing, and Rhoady Lee Jr. would reply: “Any better, I couldn’t stand it.”

And it wasn’t just a line. Even during his final days, Mr. Lee’s cheerful nature shone through. “He was making jokes with everyone who came to visit him,” said his daughter Maureen Lee. “He always saw the glass as half full.”

Mr. Lee, who was 84 when he died Wednesday at his Hunts Point home, nurtured a small sand and gravel company into one of the Northwest’s biggest asphalt paving contractors. But his generosity is what people remember most.

Whether it was a few thousand dollars for a program to buy back guns or millions to build a chapel at Seattle University (SU), Mr. Lee gave freely of his money and time. “When somebody asked him for something, I don’t remember him ever saying no,” said his son Mike Lee.

Catholic schools were the cause most dear to Mr. Lee and his wife, Jeanne Marie. He served on the boards of both SU and Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, as well as supporting dozens of other churches and charities across the region.

“Rhoady’s commitment to our university was boundless and unwavering,” SU President Stephen Sundborg wrote in a letter Friday to the university staff. “The Lees had a hand in enriching and making possible many aspects of the Seattle University experience.”

Mr. Lee also reached out to individuals who needed a hand, offering loans even though he knew many would never be paid back. Larry Darnell, who worked with Mr. Lee for decades, saw him give a panhandler a hundred dollar bill. Sometimes Darnell would take his boss to task for being such a soft touch. “He would just look at me and say: ‘Larry, someday you may need help, too.'”

Improving schools was important to Mr. Lee partly because his own father never got past the eighth grade. Mr. Lee graduated from SU in 1950 with a business degree and met his wife of 61 years there. “He was profoundly grateful for his education,” Maureen Lee said.

Born in Seattle in 1928, Mr. Lee lived in the area his entire life. His father owned several Seattle hotels where Mr. Lee worked as a young man before making the leap to his own business, now called Lakeside Industries. Today the company, which is jointly owned by Mr. Lee’s six children, has 650 employees in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

A key to Mr. Lee’s business success was his genuine interest in others, said Mike Lee, who manages the operation. “He made everybody in our company feel incredibly important, no matter what their position was.” Even last year, when his health was slipping, Mr. Lee attended the holiday party and spoke with everyone he could.

Mr. Lee also made his annual fly-fishing trip to Alaska last year. Years ago, when he was paving the airstrip at King Salmon on Bristol Bay, Mr. Lee traded a leftover pile of gravel for an old Navy barge, Mike Lee explained. He hauled the barge up a nearby river and anchored it there as a base for future fishing expeditions.

Mr. Lee relished outdoor adventures, and he raised his children to share that passion. The family built a cabin at Alpental ski area near Snoqualmie Pass, and spent every winter weekend skiing. Cowboy music was often playing on the stereo, revealing a love of the West that Mr. Lee later satisfied by buying a cattle ranch in Idaho. He flew his own plane and waterskiied, sometimes with Maureen perched on his shoulders.

“Work hard and play hard was his philosophy,” Darnell said.

Mr. Lee’s Catholic faith, passed down from his Irish father and Scottish mother, was a compass that guided him throughout his life. But he wasn’t afraid to step outside the doctrine when it came to things like acceptance of gay family members, said Maureen Lee. “Over the years when he and his church or he and his political party differed, he just followed his heart.”

Mr. Lee suffered a stroke about 10 years ago. In recent years, diabetes and heart problems forced him to use a wheelchair. With his kidneys failing, doctors told him dialysis was his only option. Maureen Lee said her father gave the idea a thumb’s down gesture, then looked at his wife and asked: “If that’s OK with you?”

He spent his last days at home, surrounded by friends and family.

Mr. Lee’s other survivors include his daughters Sharon and Mary Pat; sons Timothy and Rhoady III, their spouses and partners, and 15 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Sacred Heart Church in Bellevue on Monday, Aug. 27, at 10 a.m. A guest book is available online at harveyfuneral.com. Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to Seattle University or Catholic Community Services.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com