Sean Donnelly/Daily Journal
Reporter Vic Lee conducts an interview about home foreclosures for television station ABC7.
From international politics to smiling faces, television reporter Vic Lee has been telling stories to the Bay Area for more than 30 years.
As a result, 61-year-old Lee has become a household name. Viewers recognize and approach him anywhere he goes — even leaving a coffee shop after an interview. The San Mateo resident takes the pressure and local fame in stride with a smile and a moment to say hello to those who watch his reports on ABC7.
Lee didn’t start out in the limelight.
He was born in Shanghai, China on Sept. 29, 1946 to a foreign correspondent and an opera singer. At 3 years old, Lee and his mother needed to flee China to meet up with his father who was already working in Japan.
The pair caught the last plane out before the communists took over in 1949. They left everything at home, flying without papers. As a result, Lee and his mother were quarantined until his father could finish the paperwork.
Lee grew up in Japan learning at an American school. There were 40 different languages spoken at his school. It was the home to the children of diplomats and businessmen. For Lee, it meant speaking English at school, Japanese with friends and Mandarin at home with his family.
Graduation meant it was time to leave home — all the kids in school were doing it.
Lee moved to California with a friend to study political science at San Jose State University. California was a state he thought would be full of rock and roll, apple pie and movie stars.
The pair was picked up by Lee’s friend’s family and taken to a little coffee shop in Palo Alto. It was there that Lee had his first real cheeseburger with French fries and a vanilla shake — a memory he still savors.
San Jose in the ’60s was not as Lee had expected. He walked into the Bay Area during the time of civil rights movement, the Beatnik movement and antiwar protesters. As a middle-of-the road guy politically, Lee found himself getting support when he chose to run for student leadership.
Craig Donnelly met Lee while mediating a debate. Donnelly became Lee’s campaign manager during his bid for student body president. The two are still friends today.
Student leadership introduced Lee to his future wife Suzie, who was elected as secretary.
"Vic is a very, very loyal friend. Vic and Suzie are very loyal to their lifelong friends, and it’s a mutual depth of feelings for people,” said Donnelly, now district director for Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco. "They have a value for people, value for justice and equality.”
During Lee’s leadership, he and Donnelly had to mediate a potential black football player strike. The players alleged there was housing discrimination, which Donnelly said there was.
At one point in college, Lee’s father decided the young man needed a job. Lee got an internship at the New York Times thanks to his father’s relationship with Abe Rosenthal — the city editor at the time. The press pass brought glee to Lee but meant lots of grunt work — grabbing food, picking up dry cleaning and editing copy into the night. Occasionally, Lee was sent out into the field with reporters.
The Harlem riots was his most memorable experience. The one black writer on hand was sent out with Lee at his back.
"The cars were set on fire. I’d never been in that part of town. Finally the police set us all away. I never was in the thick of it,” Lee explained. "I got a rush later on covering Rodney King; I had a flashback. It was scary; dangerous and scary.”
After college Lee, once again found himself in need of a job. This time he and college buddies moved to New York to start up National Academic Services which offered services to student governments. National Academic Services would give discounts on travel and records — products students would find interesting. It was during the time of the air traffic controller strike which slowed down the mail — the business’s mode of advertising. The company folded.
Again, Lee needed work.
A family friend turned Lee onto a position opening up at the Portland Bureau of the United Press International — a news press wire.
Lee had to learn the writing style. He grew up proofing his father’s work, overlooking the inverted pyramid style of writing journalists utilize.
"It must be in the DNA,” Lee said. "It came really easy.”
In his travels and story coverage, Lee bumped into Suzie. She was a flight attendant at the time. The pair married in 1971. They enjoyed a commuter relationship for a number of years. Lee moved to the UPI bureau in Los Angeles. The couple saw themselves at least on the weekend.
A position opened at KRON4 as a writer and Lee jumped at the chance to be in the Bay Area with his wife.
After moving up the ranks at the station, Lee wanted an on-air position — not as anchor, but as a reporter. At the time he was basically told it wouldn’t happen. It took a strike for Lee to get his chance.
Over the years on air, Lee had the chance to travel around the world — like covering stories in Asia or witnessing starvation in the Sudan in the ’80s. In 2006, Lee left KRON4 to join the ABC7 team.
Lee and Suzie have one daughter, Natalie. Growing up, Natalie watched her dad on air. In the evening she overheard him complaining about the restarts of a one- to two-minute report, always wanting more time to tell the story.
Once when asked in elementary school what her father does, Natalie explained, "My daddy only works one-and-a-half minutes a day,” Lee said with a laugh.
Many people don’t understand the work that Lee puts into a story, said longtime friend Dale Minami.
"I think people don’t know what goes into a story; especially a controversial story. He gathers factual information from all angles of [a] story so ... it’s fair. Vic has a lot of scoops but he spends months working on a story, to make sure it’s totally accurate. It’s fair. … I don’t think people understand how hard he works,” said Minami, an attorney who met Lee during his coverage of the Asian Pacific American community.
The work has paid off. Lee boasts a number of awards for his work including the George Polk Award of Journalism for best local TV reporting in 1985, numerous Emmys and awards from the Associated Press, The Radio-Television News Directors Association, Society of Professional Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association.
But not all his time is spent doing research for on-air reports. Lee and Suzie are movie buffs. They also have a love for karaoke — which includes two machines at home. Lee prefers singing the classics like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennet.
The friendly 61-year-old doesn’t have plans to settle down and make singing a full-time hobby, however.
"I don’t ever want to retire,” he said. "I want to continue working as long as health permits. … I love this job. I still have the same energy dedicated to a story, because, as the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last story.”
Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.