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Remembering John Lee
May 28, 2012, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

Today, Memorial Day, is the day we remember our nation’s soldiers and family members who have died. Next Sunday, family and friends will be honoring a veteran of two wars — the Vietnam and Korean — a proud Marine who also served his city as mayor and councilman. John Lee’s memorial service will be held at the San Mateo County Event Center.

I was away on vacation when John died but was notified of his serious battle with lung cancer shortly before we left. I never did get to visit with John at the Veterans Administration hospital where he passed away earlier this month.

It was a shock to those of us who knew John. He always seemed invincible, a Marine for life. He was a serious smoker and you would often find him puffing away outside San Mateo City Hall after council meetings or when there were breaks. Even though John was in his early 80s, he was never hunched up as so many men his age are but always stood tall and erect.

John told me the Marines had saved his life. In high school, he was a mixed-up kid who didn’t know what to do so he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines taught him discipline and a trade which he used to start a successful electronics company in Redwood City. When he retired, he ran for the San Mateo City Council.


When you serve with someone on the council, your colleagues are like family. At least that’s the way it has been in San Mateo. Even though John and I disagreed on several issues, we worked well together and I always considered him a friend.

When I walk into Rotary meetings now, I miss John’s smile and wave.

Underneath that tough Marine exterior was a soft heart, especially when it came to animals. John loved his dogs and when one died, and then the other, it was tough. The last time I saw John he wanted another dog. He told me he planned to go to the Humane Society and see which dog came to him. The dog who did would be it. Time didn’t wait for that to happen. No surprise then that the family asks that donations in his honor be made to the John Lee Memorial Fund for improving the city’s dog park.


My husband and I once bought a beta fish at a school foundation fundraiser. We bought it for our grandkids even though at the time they were not allowed pets. Since then, the rule has been abandoned and they have enjoyed cats, dogs, hamsters and many fish. But at the time, we were told "No Pets” so we had no choice but to keep the fish. My husband, who was never emotionally attached to our dogs, saw something in that beta and named him Leo (We assumed it was a he). We had little luck with goldfish in the past but this beta was a survivor. I told John about Leo and how my husband enjoyed watching him swim around the fish bowl. When eventually Leo ended up as our other fish had, John wrote a serious condolence note to my husband.


I was mayor in 1998 when we had a vacancy on the council. John had run in the previous election and, while he had not won, he was the first runner-up. So the council appointed John by unanimous vote. John would go to the council office every day. He considered it his job and it was important for him to have an office away from home. He loved being mayor and would often stand up at council meetings to address the audience. At one time, he was the only male on the council. He used to joke that he was the thorn among the roses. But John was no thorn. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a great commitment to the city. We will miss him very much.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at

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