Flags in front of Kelowna City Hall will fly at half mast this week as the municipality pays homage to the man affectionately known around town as the “Mayor of Rutland.”
Ben Lee died Sunday, March 20, at the age of 86, after a battle with cancer.
Among other things, Lee’s political career was a stand-out for the work he did in championing Rutland after it was absorbed into Kelowna in 1973, creating public parks and supporting multiculturalism. He left city council in 1996 after a 23 year stint in office, but he never faded away from the public eye, opting instead to quietly donate his time to the community he helped shape.
And his passing will leave a void in Kelowna and the lives of many who knew him.
“I’ll miss him. Rutland will miss a great man, ” said Al Horning, who noted he often ran into Lee at community events and in places he continued to volunteer.
“He was always doing something, even at his age, he would get up and get to work at the (Rutland Hospital Auxiliary) thrift store every day. And at Ben Lee Park, which is a big part of Rutland, he always made sure that was in good shape, if it needed something, he was down there making sure it happened. … It was something.”
That, explained Horning, was the continuation of community service that defined Lee.
“When I was young and finishing school, (Lee) was my art teacher, and as I grew up in Rutland I knew him through sports, which he was always involved in,” said Horning.
In later years the two became colleagues, both serving on council.
“I worked with (Lee) for a lot of years on city council, and together out here in Rutland. (Lee) was the type person who wasn’t confrontational, he loved people, he loved kids, and he was always looking after people.”
His kind nature, however, didn’t make him an ineffective community leader.
“If the people wanted something he would fight for it. If they didn’t, he would fight for that,” said Horning. “But he was never vicious like some politicians.”
A new generation of politicians also took a moment to remember Lee and the example he set, at the beginning of the regular council meeting.
Lee was a “a unifying force for the entire city of Kelowna,” said Mayor Colin Basran, who memorialized Lee, the “Mayor of Rutland” on behalf of his council.
“He was a quiet trail-blazer for multi-culturalism in Kelowna, as a founding member of the Multi-Cultural Society and annual Folk Fest celebration that we continue to enjoy on Canada Day,” said Basran.
“A teacher, a coach, a councillor and a committed family man, Ben was an exceptional person who has left an indelible mark on our city,” said Basran.
Lee’s valuable contribution to the preservation of cultural heritage was recognized provincially with the 1989 Public Service Award of the Vancouver Multicultural Society of B.C. His award marked the first time the award had been presented to anyone outside of the Lower Mainland.
He also took a lead role in developing the city’s heritage management plan and Guishachan Heritage Park.
As chair of the regional district’s parks committee, between 1983 and 1996, Ben was a strong advocate of park lands acquisition and pushed for development of a number of regional parks we enjoy today.
In recognition of his years of dedicated service, in 1996 the City of Kelowna named a new eight-hectare park in Rutland in his honour. Ben Lee Park officially opened on June 24, 2001.
A longtime resident of Rutland, Ben was born in Armstrong, B.C. and was married with two sons.
“As a symbol of our respect and appreciation for his community service we will be lowering city flags to half mast until sunset on Saturday (March 26), the day of the funeral,” said Basran.
“The family is hosting a celebration of life Saturday, March 26, at Ben Lee Park, between 1 and 4 p.m. which the public is invited to attend. I know that many, if not all, of us councillors will be in attendance to show our respect.”