Shepard Lee could have focused his life on his successful career as a car dealer, his family and friends say, but that success allowed him to move beyond the business world to help strengthen Maine’s Democratic Party and to fight for human rights.
In building up his family’s car business from one dealership to nine, selling eight brands, Shep Lee was “smart and creative,” said his daughter, Catherine Lee. “But he always felt that he needed something more to have a satisfying life.”
Lee died Wednesday night at his home in Cape Elizabeth at the age of 83.
He was a car dealer whose hallmark was integrity, a businessman who was eager to share what he learned with colleagues and competitors, a non-practicing Jew who embraced Jewish ideals of justice and tolerance, and a staunch Democrat who helped to build the party in what was once a Republican state.
“He was a real progressive,” said Severin Beliveau, who was chairman of the state Democratic Party in the 1970s.
Lee was born and grew up in Lewiston, and interrupted his education at Bowdoin College to serve in the Navy in World War II.
He went back to Bowdoin after the war and graduated in 1947, then went to work the next day selling cars at his father’s dealership, Advance Auto Sales in Auburn.
Lee got involved in Democratic politics in the 1950s. “In those days, there weren’t too many businessmen and women who were active and prominent in the Democratic Party,” Beliveau said. “He didn’t compromise his principles because he became a successful businessman.”
Lee was one of a handful of car dealers in Maine who recognized that the industry’s future was in branching out and selling more than one brand. Although manufacturers fought to keep dealers focused on a single brand — their own — dealers like Lee recognized that they could do better offering customers a range of choices.
Lee also put his face on the dealerships, appearing in ads, as his son Adam has done since taking over the business.
“He was a little bit more in the public eye than the other dealers,” said Tom Brown, president of the Maine Auto Dealers Association.
Brown said Lee encouraged other dealers to support consumer legislation to enhance the industry’s reputation, and often offered advice to other dealers, even though some were direct competitors.
“He was very willing to share experiences and raise the level of the business,” Brown said.
Lee didn’t try to hide his political leanings, Brown said, even if they might discourage Republicans from patronizing his business — at a time when most dealers steered away from anything more controversial than sponsoring a Little League team.
Gov. John Baldacci said Lee’s willingness to stand up for what he believed in was helpful when Maine was strengthening its clean-air standards for cars. When the industry tried to convince lawmakers that the stricter rules would hurt car dealerships in the state, Baldacci was able to point to Shep and Adam Lee, who were supporting the new requirements.
Baldacci said that after he was elected to Congress in 1994, he spent a lot of time seeking advice from former Sen. Ed Muskie, who was practicing law in Washington. He said he soon learned that “Shep Lee and Muskie were inseparable,” and that Muskie had borrowed cars off Lee’s lot as he campaigned for governor in the 1950s.
Baldacci, like Democratic governors before him, often called on Lee for advice. He appointed Lee to the board of the Finance Authority of Maine.
“He kept to those Democratic values of civil rights and human rights,” Baldacci said, “even if the causes worked against his personal financial or business interests.”
Catherine Lee also remembers the close relationship between her father and Muskie, and how she and her father would go through supermarket parking lots putting Muskie bumper stickers on cars.
Muskie often stayed with her family, she said, and he and her father would debate issues deep into the night — conversations marked by Muskie exclaiming “Dammit, Shep!” when her father would push a policy that Muskie felt wasn’t practical.
Lee fostered a similar relationship with former Sen. George Mitchell, who became Maine’s leading Democrat in the 1980s.
Catherine Lee said Mitchell made it to her father’s bedside on Wednesday, hours before his death, coming from the Mideast, where he is President Obama’s special envoy trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
She said her father’s support for equality and fairness extended to his children’s causes, as he supported their advocacy of gay or women’s rights.
It didn’t, however, extend to the sweatshirt she had, emblazoned with the slogan “We don’t need balls to play sports,” when she was pushing for equal funding for men’s and women’s athletics.
One time, she said, Lee was asked where he got his values.
“He said, ‘I don’t know where they came from, but I know what they are.’ “
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: