As a top executive and owner, Herbert C. Lee guided shoe companies in New England and across the country, and he oversaw factories around the world. Finding time in his busy life to rise through the ranks of industry could at times be challenging, however.
He spent high school summers during the Great Depression hopping trains to see the country. As a US Navy intelligence officer during World War II, he wrote well-regarded technical manuals. An able amateur musician, he could pick out tunes on guitar, saxophone, and piano. In the later decades of his life, he organized trips to Canada for titans of industry, who fly-fished for salmon by day and played gin rummy by night.
“I know this is going to be a very strange thing to say about someone who was 97 years old, but he had so much to offer that his passing has to be viewed as dying prematurely,’’ said Al Flamm, a friend and former president of Union Carbide. “It’s a tremendous loss.’’
Mr. Lee died April 4 in Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., about a month after his health failed. He was 97 and had lived in Belmont for many years before dividing his time between Boston and Palm Beach.
Mr. Lee and his late wife, Micki, “were devoted friends and generous supporters of the Harvard Art Museums during their lives,’’ said director Thomas W. Lentz. “Together, they built a remarkable art collection, which they shared with many organizations and institutions. The entire arts community here in Boston mourns his passing; it is a real loss.’’
‘It was always good and fun to talk with him, because you felt close to him as a person.’
Philanthropists and arts patrons, the Lees also were mainstays of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
In addition, Mr. Lee raised money for and served on boards of Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, among others.
Despite the power that accompanies such roles, “there were no airs at all,’’ said Mitchell T. Rabkin, chief executive emeritus of Beth Israel. “It was always good and fun to talk with him, because you felt close to him as a person, and he really was interested in you and what you were doing.’’
When people encountered Mr. Lee, he made it clear “that it made his day to see them,’’ said his son Jonathan of Brookline. “He also had this thing that he could be just like them, so it was almost like they had a twin to talk to. He was so empathetic.’’
Mr. Lee was born and grew up in Newark, the oldest of three children. His father ran a dry goods store that suffered during the Depression, when Mr. Lee decided to hop trains to California and back one summer and to Alaska and back the next.
“He talked his mother into it and started out at 14,’’ his son said. “He said he got to camp with the hobos.’’
While attending night school at a precursor to Rutgers University, Mr. Lee worked as a merchandise manager and signed up for the Coast Guard before taking a job at a store in Columbus, Ohio.
There he met Mildred Schiff, who was known as Micki, and whose father ran Shoe Corporation of America. They married in 1941. Mrs. Lee died in 2009.
When World War II began, Mr. Lee switched from the Coast Guard to the Navy and served as a lieutenant.
“He was very proud of his Navy work,’’ said his son Thomas of New York City. “They wanted him to stay, but business and his father-in-law prevailed.’’
Joining Shoe Corporation, Mr. Lee was a board member and vice president for manufacturing. He also helped run its subsidiary A.S. Beck, a shoe store chain, and was president of Shoe Corporation of Canada. Later, he was president of Clark Shoes.
Overseeing manufacturing meant traveling to outposts in places such as France and Puerto Rico.
“He was completely dedicated to work,’’ Thomas said. “He was running these factories around the world and would leave Monday and come back Friday.’’
Among Mr. Lee’s friends and business partners was Boston developer Norman Leventhal.
“Herb was a wonderful friend for over 50 years,’’ Leventhal said.
“Our friendship brought us salmon fishing to Canada, and for many years we enjoyed our weekly gin rummy games. There was no finer person who brought such warmth, compassion, and humor to everything he did. We have all lost a great human being and friend.’’
A service has been held for Mr. Lee, who in addition to his two sons leaves another son, Richard of Menemsha, on Martha’s Vineyard, and seven grandchildren.
“The only promise he broke in all the years we spent together is that we’d celebrate his 100th birthday together,’’ Flamm said. “We will not physically be together, but I promise the gin rummy group will celebrate his 100th birthday together.’’
Mr. Lee’s friends in Palm Beach, his home for several years and a vacation destination before that, plan to honor him this fall.
In 1993, Mr. Lee and other residents founded the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which promotes respect and understanding among various denominations.
“The fellowship was Herb’s love and his passion, and he was responsible for its success,’’ John C. Randolph, chairman of the organization, wrote to the membership. “Herb cared about people, the eradication of bigotry, and the triumph of human understanding.’’
Phil Whitacre of West Palm Beach, a friend and fellowship member, said Mr. Lee “typified the word gentleman.’’
Spending time with him “was a treat; it was more than rewarding,’’ Whitacre added.
“Herb had a joie de vivre and an appreciation of life because he loved people. He lived the life that a lot of people wish they did.’’