Unveiling: Tribute to Lawrence Lee
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
December 21, 2020, Lawrence Lee was honored in a special tribute at the Salt Lake City airport. A bust was commissioned of his image and the unveiling took place at a special event to commemorate 100 years of flight service at Salt Lake City.
Historically, the Salt Lake City International Airport has been a crossroads connecting the community to the world. Larry's vision was that one day Western Airlines would become the hub to Salt Lake City and he was right! I'm sure he never could have imagined that a bust would be commissioned to honor him!
You might be asking, why am I writing about this? In previous blog entries, (A Love Story - Part I & II), I featured Lawrence Lee , a gifted lyricist whom I worked closely with for almost 20 years.
To recap, I met Larry in the late 90's when he and his wife, Marjorie, had come to Arizona for the winter. After 43 years of working in the airline industry, Larry had retired and was pursuing a life-long goal of creative writing.
Upon our first meeting, I learned he had already had won a number of national awards for his poetry and limericks. At that time, I asked if he would consider writing some lyrics for songs, a completely different style of writing, but he was willing to try and the rest is history.
One of the first songs we wrote, "That Night in Gethsemane," was so successful that within a matter of months we had written enough music for my 2nd album, "Angels on Tiptoe".
Larry was soft-spoken, kind, gracious and his very thin 6'4" frame made him seem even taller. Marjorie, on the other hand at barely five feet in height, had such a bubbly personality and quick wit that she kept us always smiling. They made a dynamic couple whom everyone adored.
My husband and I became very close to the Lee's and when Larry began signing his emails as "Papa Larry," and Marjorie as "Mama M", it made my heart swell. Not having my parents alive, they became my adopted, extended family.
Larry loved to cook and I did also so we often invited them to dinner and birthday celebrations then afterwards would talk music. Larry loved my chicken pot pie which I always served each year for his birthday in February.
It was a very sweet association as he worked exclusively with me as a composer.
After the Lee's both passed in 2017, I've continued staying connected with the Lee family through their daughter, Stacy, who also lives in Arizona.
During the years Larry and I worked together, my husband and I began to learn more about the many contributions, not to mention sacrifices, he made to Western Airlines as he worked on his life story. It's important to step back to 1943 when he first began his airline career.
Larry worked in almost every department within the airline industry for 43 years, starting at the lowest level as a baggage handler. He was driven to succeed, an intuitive, loyal employee who gradually worked his way up the ladder as he was promoted to administrative positions. He was not only a leader but a great inspiration to all who knew him.
(The information that follows has been taken from his obituary, facebook, publications online and from the book "The Life of the Terminal" and Book: 'Air Mail Outpost to International Hub The Salt Lake City Airport’s 100-Year Evolution.’ )
While acting as Senior Vice President of Transportation Services in1982, Larry established Salt Lake City as Western's first major "hub" operation and called a press conference to announce that many new direct, non-stop flights were added. He was fearless in his efforts to translate his vision into reality, knew how to manage, lead and how to guide others to success.
Fred Ball, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerice president declared, "That one occasion was the most significant occurrence in the history of air travel service in the state of Utah."
His decision also sparked the attention of the Wall Street Journal with a headlining story, "Is Salt Lake City a Mistake?" Despite controversary, Larry's decision proved to be exactly what the airline industry that Salt Lake needed and within a few years nobody was questioning his decision as Western Airlines rose from 26th place to 13th.
"In hindsight, hub designation no doubt dramatically altered the course of the airport's history. But Western Airlines was, at the time, experiencing increasing financial difficulties and deteriorating employee morale that placed both the airline and its central role as Salt Lake City International in serious jeopardy. However, with his appointment in 1983 as Western's president and chief executive officer (with Western announcing a $50 million quarterly loss), Lee promptly led one of the most dramatic financial recoveries in airline history, a turnaround that Gerald Grinstein, who succeeded Lee, would later characterize as "A model for American Industry." (The Life of the Terminal).
"That recovery would prove critical to the future of the Salt Lake Airport. Within the next few years, Salt Lake City International would become one of the busiest hubs in the country and Western Airlines' operations and financials would strengthen to the point at which it represented a substantial financial and logistic asset. So much so that, even as Lee was retiring in 1986, Delta Air Lines was in the process of acquiring Western, retaining and expanding Salt Lake City International as a major global hub." (The Life of the Terminal)
There was an incident when a meeting was held for about one hundred employees. Larry was giving them a "pep talk" and encouraging workers to keep their stocks, look towards a better future and not to panic. Right then a young man in attendance raised his hand and said, "That's easy for you to say with the paycheck you get."
Larry replied, "I will gladly trade you mine for yours. I have it in my pocket." The young man anxiously approached Larry on the stand and they exchanged paychecks. When the he looked down, he didn't know what to say and stuttered, "But it's only $1.00!!"
Larry remarked,"That's right."
Incidents like this were inspiring to the employees under his leadership because for more than one year, Larry's monthly paycheck was just $1.00 because he didn't want wages for the employees cut. To this day, the incident has never been shared nor included in his life story because Larry wasn't seeking praise. However, his family gave me permission to include this and it is just one example of a selfless and humble man whom I was extremely blessed to have the privilege of working with.
An exciting experience happened at the March 29th, 1985 dedication ceremony of the first
737-300 aircraft which had just flown in from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Larry was in attendance along with Louis Miller, Jerry Grinstein, Victor L. Brown and Robin H. H. Wilson. Immediately following an inspiring speech by Grinstein, the captain leaned out the window and pulled the "speed tape" off the side of the nose exposing the name “Larry Lee” of the aircraft.
"They had dedicated the magnificent aircraft to Larry, who was caught off guard by such an honor. He was even more shocked when Mr Grinstein then called to all of Larry’s family members, including Margie’s Mother, to walk out on the field as part of the tribute surprise. Lastly, Bob Wylie, vice president of Boeing sales, presented Margie with the key to the 737-300 and a beautifully encased copy of the plaque that was mounted at the entry of the aircraft named the “Larry Lee.” Then everyone boarded the plane, it was a great celebration!"
The Lee's were presented with the above model of the Larry Lee aircraft and a plaque which reads:
Your commitment and leadership have made it possible for American's senior airline to enter its second 60 years. You daily earned the admiration and respect of everyone who have been privileged to work with you. We thank you.
The Board of Directors, Officers and Employees.
Western Airlines Inc.
January 21, 1986
Leading up to the build out of the new Salt Lake airport, members of the community also reached out in recognition of Larry's leadership. This is just one example:
"Name the airport after Larry Lee, former CEO of Western Airlines. You may ask what is the significance of Larry Lee? Significantly under Larry Lee, Western created the first hub operation (SLC) in the United States in 1981. Politicians don’t create airports; airlines do.
Please consider Larry Lee, the father of hub operations, as the name for the new airport. It is a fitting recognition of what Western/Delta have contributed to the economy of Utah.
Frank Overfelt, Cottonwood Heights Sept. 18, 2020, 7:00am MDT
Having proven the value of the Salt Lake City "hub" and establishing record profits, Western became an attractive merger entity and was sold to Delta Air Lines in 1986, shortly after Larry retired as Chairman of the Board."
More details of Larry's life:
Larry's hobbies and interests included playing guitar, jewelry making, cooking, and chocolatiering.
During his retirement years he enjoyed writing and became a lyricist and award-winning poet.
He and Marjorie shared a marriage of 71 years. She died in July and he passed in October.
Larry received his MBA degree from California State University Domingues Hills and later served on the President's Advisory Board.
When he was promoted to higher positions with Western, he refused to take a retirement paycheck higher than a pilot's. He also refused to take advantage of extra perks offered for his position which is one more example of his integrity. Once again I say that Larry was a very humble man who made his mark on the world and the airline industry. Need I say more?
In 2008, Larry wrote about his experiences in a book entitled "The Airline Years" which was renamed "Riding for the Brand" and published October, 2017.
"Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it, and virtue is doing it."
- David Star Jordan