Peter Calamai C.M. was editor of the Citizen editorial pages from 1990 to 1996.
With Leonard Lee’s death, the community loses a man of honour
He was passionate about Saskatchewan, carpentry and business, writes Peter Calamai.
From page A7 Editorial page editors regularly get calls from people taking issue with the paper’s editorial stance, so I wasn’t taken aback when Leonard Lee telephoned in late 1991. In a polite but firm fashion, he informed me that we didn’t understand the financial exigencies for a medium-sized business such as Lee Valley Tools.
I countered by inviting him to join us for a month as a guest member of the editorial board, taking part in the morning meeting to determine the thrust of the next day’s editorials. I never expected he would accept, since he did have a business to manage, even if it was only a few minutes away from the Citizen’s Baxter Road offices.
But Leonard Lee surprised me and throughout February 1992 he turned up daily.
You learn a lot about someone when you have intense discussions for an hour about everything from taxes, to municipal services, to federal politics and international affairs.
I learned that Leonard Lee was passionate about Saskatchewan, about language, about carpentry, about imaginative inventions, about the Canadian federation and about integrity in business dealings.
Above all else, I learned that he was an honourable man.
Over the next 24 years, these first impressions were reinforced and deepened as we became friends.
When Leonard was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in October 2002, his citation read: “In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, he is active within the community and has generously given of his time to the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College, the Public Policy Forum and the Greater Ottawa Board of Trade.”
Rideau Hall didn’t know the half of it.
Dozens of undertakings have received a quiet helping hand from Leonard Lee and the company he started by putting together a catalogue at a kitchen table with his wife, Lorraine.
My own such experience came when I was trying to launch the Word on the Street literacy event in Ottawa in 1998. I approached Leonard for a contribution. No, he said, I won’t give you money but I will help you to raise some. Find a book that our company can reprint and sell and we’ll donate all the proceeds beyond the production costs.
We found two out-of-copyright books that were perfectly attuned to the Lee Valley clientele: A Hundred Things a Boy Can Make and A Hundred Things a Girl Can Make. Their sales contributed more than $15,000 to the event.
Leonard’s integrity was as boundless as the sky in his native Saskatchewan. One incident particularly epitomized this for me.
The company had designed an ingenious kit version of a cloche, a plastic-walled box to protect plants from frost. After many sales, they discovered that in prolonged high temperatures the metal frame might expand faster than the plastic inserts which might pop out. No one had complained but Leonard sent a refund to all buyers. And invited them to keep the cloches.
Leonard was endlessly imaginative about discovering items that satisfied his love of practicality and would also appeal to the company’s customers. Look closely at those popular white plastic scrub brushes which Lee Valley correctly claims have dozen of uses and you’ll see a rectangular indentation on the back. Originally, that held a miniature bar of antibacterial soap and the brush was used to scrub a patient’s skin at the spot where surgeons were going to operate. When Leonard had a back operation, he was scrubbed with one of those brushes. Soon after, he bought the manufacturer’s entire stock.
Two years ago, I drove to Almonte for one of our regular, if infrequent, lunches. Our talk ranged from his collection of heirloom slide rules to an awl for making standard-sized holes in drywall. As I was leaving, he dragged me into Mill Street Books and thrust The Happiness Diet into my hands, saying “You must read this. It changed my life.”
A man of endless enthusiasm and boundless integrity has left us.