Ben Lee may have been affectionately known as the ‘Mayor of Rutland’ but the work he did, both in his professional and private life, benefitted residents across the entire city, as well as the region.
Lee, the well-liked former city councillor and the man who was a driving force behind efforts to help the multicultural make-up of this city, passed away on the weekend. He was 86.
I first met Ben when I came to Kelowna as a reporter in 1993. At the time he, and then-mayor Jim Stuart, were wrapping up long careers on city council and years after their retirements, the city rewarded both men with its highest honour—freedom of the city. But when they left office, it also did something that in many ways was even more fitting, especially for Lee. It announced both would have city parks named after them.
Lee was a tireless champion of parks and the city announced an eight-hectare plot of land in Rutland would become Ben Lee Park. Today, the park that bears his name is one of the most popular in the city and stands as a testament to Lee’s desire to see open-air recreation space available for all Kelowna residents to enjoy.
But parks are just a small portion of Lee’s lasting impact on this city. He was a teacher, a tireless volunteer with numerous groups, a long-time city councillor, he helped ease the transition of Rutland into the City of Kelowna following the highly controversial provincial amalgamation decree in 1973, he helped start the local multicultural society and he was a founder of Folkfest, the annual entertainment showcase that features the talents of many local ethnic groups who perform on stage at Prospera Place during the annual Canada Day celebrations.
In all my years knowing and covering Ben, I never heard anyone say a bad word about him and seldom saw him without a smile on his face. He had a quiet dignity about him, an air of inclusion and a friendliness that immediately put people at ease.
As the first male Chinese teacher in the B.C. Interior in the 1950s, one could well expect life was difficult for him then. But, a few years ago during the province’s run up to its historic apology to the Chinese community for its treatment of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s—a process Lee was specifically invited to participate in—he told me he had never felt the sting of racism himself.
Instead, he remembered public school board discussions about the hiring of an “Oriental” teacher and one man, a caucasian, standing up to say: “What does it matter as long as he can teach?”
And it was that same inclusive spirit that Ben instilled in others throughout his life and work.
I saw Ben at Folkfest in 2014, quietly taking it all in with his wife Joyce, not trying to draw attention to himself. But repeatedly, someone in the crowd would recognize him, say hello, and come up and shake his hand. And when they did, Ben beamed, that familiar smile showing he was just as happy to see them as they were to see him.
When it comes to community builders, Ben Lee’s name must be near the top of the list in this city.
Kelowna has lost a man who wasn’t just the unofficial Mayor of Rutland. In many ways, he was the unofficial mayor of the entire city.
Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Kelowna Capital News.