All around Washington State, tears of grief are rolling up against memories of the booming, mountainous laugh of Tony Lee, who died on Thursday of complications from Primary Lateral Sclerosis. Tony will be remembered as many things: passionate, committed, smart, a man of integrity, a keen analyst, a tireless champion of racial justice, and the source of a wondrously infectious laugh.
For those who had the honor to know and work with him, he was simply one of the greats. As befits a legend who had such profound impact on our organization and our entire state, Tony’s exact age was unknown. While best estimates are mid-70s, documents that would confirm got lost when his family left China.
“Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.” ~Tony Lee
Many aspire to leave this world having made a positive difference. Tony fulfilled that aspiration many times over in his 30-plus years working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations in Washington State. Tony had a hand in the creation and protection of many state policies that promote equity and equal opportunity for people living on low incomes. For example, he was a driving force behind the creation of the state’s Food Assistance Program, which extended food benefits to tens of thousands of legal immigrants who were excluded from food stamp eligibility.
“Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done,” he said during a 2014 interview.
Moreover, Tony Lee inspired, informed, trained, mentored, cheered, and encouraged so many others to do the same. Leading by example, Tony motivated those around him to work harder, think more critically, and find joy in life. He made those around him better people. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was beloved, revered, and respected by colleagues, friends, and family. Gordon McHenry, Jr., Solid Ground’s past President & CEO, remembers Tony as “one of the wisest people I have had the privilege to know in my life.”
For over three decades, including 19 years as Advocacy Director at Solid Ground, Tony was the state’s leading lobbyist on issues impacting people living on low incomes.
Tony started his career as a lawyer with Evergreen Legal Services launching his work as a leader in the field of multi-racial organizing. In fairly short order, Tony shifted his focus to become a civil rights policy advocate. This was not an intentional career move; rather he explained that he “stumbled” into policy work “by luck.” Tony abandoned the practice of law to spend the bulk of his career as an advocate, focusing his efforts on how to make laws more just and equitable.
Tony readily took on the role of champion to those suffering inequities and injustices from poverty and racism. As Washington State House Representative and Former Executive Director of Solid Ground (Fremont Public Association) Frank Chopp describes him, “Tony Lee [was] the conscience of Washington State when it comes to helping poor people.”
In August of 1995, Tony joined Solid Ground (then the Fremont Public Association) where he worked as Advocacy Director until his semi-retirement in September 2014. During this time he was the driving force in shaping, informing, and directing Solid Ground’s advocacy work as a founding member of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in 1996. Under Tony’s direction, progress was made on issues including welfare reform, food security, affordable housing, and the achievement gap in education. From September 2014 to December 2018, Tony continued to serve as Solid Ground’s and Poverty Action’s Senior Fellow.
In addition to his work with Solid Ground, Tony served many other community organizations including:
- Board President and Co-founder of the Equity in Education Coalition
- Co-chair of the King County Chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition
- Steering committee member of Front and Centered
- Founding member of the Asian-Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington
- Advocate for the Washington Association of Churches and the Catholic Archdiocese
Tony described the motivation behind his lifelong work as follows, “Every day, people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.”
Tony’s “huge laugh & huge heart”
Diane Narasaki, former Executive Director, Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), once described Tony this way: “Tony Lee is a really special human being, with a huge laugh, and huge heart, and brains to go along with it, all of which are put to the service of improving and saving the lives of the most vulnerable people in our state.”
Everyone who had the privilege of working with Tony seems to have a story about his booming laugh and joyous spirit. Tony’s signature laugh was distinctive, contagious, and uplifting. Upon hearing it you couldn’t help but break into a smile.
Though the work he did was hard and frequently discouraging and contentious, Tony brought joy, laughter, and passion to all that he did. As Lynn Livesely, former Solid Ground Volunteer Resources Director and former Literacy Source Executive Director, described him, “Tony worked so incredibly hard, but also had such a great time. He had such a great sprit about everything he did.”
Awards & acknowledgements of service
Tony was recognized for his contributions to the community during his lifetime by the following:
- Lifetime Achievement Award by the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC) at their 30th anniversary celebration on June 8, 2018 at Daybreak Star Native American Cultural Center (see Former Advocacy Director honored for lifetime achievement). Tony helped found the Coalition and served on its steering committee for the entire 30 years of its existence. According to Julia Sterkovsky, SHSC Executive Director, “Tony Lee has had a profound impact on activists and activism in Seattle. His leadership has led to many successful campaigns to increase public investment in the people of Seattle and King County, including funding for affordable housing, seniors, veterans, children, and youth, community health clinics, as well as emergency shelter and food.”
- The Goldmark Award for exceptional leadership in social justice from the Washington Legal Foundation.
- The Tony Lee Apartments – The Low Income Housing Institute’s new low-income housing facility, located in the Lake City Way Village, is named in Tony’s honor and will provide housing for low -wage workers making minimum wage and those on a pension or disability.
The State of Washington, the civil rights community, friends, family, and especially those who are suffering from racial injustices have lost a special human being today, though the echoes of his laugh and the legacy of his work will live on.
For more on Tony and his many contributions:
- Read the Seattle Time’s story celebrating his life.
- Watch this video we prepared for Tony’s 2014 retirement from Solid Ground.
While some of the attributions are dated, the sentiments expressed are only sweeter for the intervening time.
Paul Haas says
Wonderful piece, Mike.
Liz Reed Hawk says
Apparently we have both Jane S. and Mike to thank for this beautiful tribute. ♥
NNancy Amidei says
Tony was a smart, tireless advocate, and a great person. Like so many others, I am profoundly grateful that I had the opportunity to know, and work with, him.
Evonne Zook says
I’m heartbroken that Tony has left us. Few lives have impacted Seattle in such a profound way. His influence on the legal advocacy work of Solid Ground was immeasurable – and I personally treasured his friendship. I know he will be proud of Solid Ground’s continued good works!
Tony was one of the best! May his life be a blessing!
Mike Prineas,Jr. says
Tony used to play tennis with me when i was a little boy around 7-8 at woodland prk. tennis courts. Tony was fine tennis player in his own right, graduating from Lincoln high school, and later i believe he attended Harvard. as a youngster Tony was just out of h.s.and would come to the park and play and help me when others would not. he always told me to stick with it i would become somebody.Later after igraduated from college and wasplaying on the pro tour,i ran into Tony in wallingford he came up and told me how proud he was that i continued and became a top player. thats the last i saw of Tony, but will always remember his kindness and devotion in helping someone achieve their love of life.
peter bacho says
i knew tony when we were both young attorneys. i am sorry to hear of his passing. he was smart and articulate. more importantly, he had a heart bigger than all of Seattle. his legacy is the significant good he has done for marginalized people in Washington.
kristine beaton says
I so appreciated Tony’s smile and laughter! Condolences to the family and close friends.
Astrid Lacitis says
My 1965 graduating class in Seattle’s Lincoln High school had a bit over 900 students. Among us was Anthony Lee. In such a multitude it is hard to be remembered. But even at the age of 18 Anthony stood out . Perhaps it was his infectious laughter, perhaps his intellect. Hard to tell.
But he most certainly did not blend in. Anthony was one of a kind.
A little bit of each of us is lost with his passing.
John Mitchell says
As I recall we had 757 in our graduating class. I think I still have a program from the ceremony listing all of us. Would have brought it to the intended 55th reunion in September that has been rescheduled. September 2021?
Curt Firestone says
Tony was a very special friend. We loved laughing together; going to tennis tournaments together; talking politics together; sharing life. Tony will remain in my heart forever. There is no-one that I have ever respected more than Tony.
John Dortero says
Tony was always a light in the fight for social and economic justice, and I feel extremely privileged to have worked with him during my short tenure with Poverty Action from 2004-2005. Tony always inspired people to do more than they thought they could achieve, and did it with a smile, with humor, and a booming laugh. RIP, Tony — you have touched more people’s lives than you will ever know, and our world is a better place because of you.
Adam Kline says
I am am in so sad to read this. I knew Tony as a Legal Services lawyer, and one of ourweekly group for dim sum at the old King Cafe. We ran into one another in Olympia, and he educated me on income assistance programs. What a loss.
Lanny SHUMAN says
At University Christian Church, before Tony retired, our congregation really liked Tony coming prior to the legislative sessions for an issues update. His good humor, deep knowledge, passion for justice, and respect for all our questions made a model for all to live up to. And for a while I volunteered at the U Baptist Saturday Kitchen meals program, where Tony still had time to wash the pots and pans. I will continue to miss his generous spirit.
Emijah Smith says
Tony Lee modeled what lifelong work looks like. His laugh will always be remembered.