SOUTH PORTLAND – John “Slim” Lee, 66, will retire June 1 after 37 years as unit director of the South Portland Boys & Girls Club, having logged, in total, 44 years in service to the community agency.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, he was recognized for his long years of dedication to local youth by Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis, who presented him with a special plaque to go along with a “Key to the City” given at Lee’s retirement dinner. During Monday’s session, Lee was described by the mayor and others in glowing phrases, with words like “hero,” “legend,” “role model” and “surrogate father” used to describe his relationship to generations of South Portland schoolchildren.

Only hours before the award, Lee sat down to with The Current to share stories from his life.

Q: How did you get the nickname “Slim?”

A: Oh, I was such an ugly little cus, just long and thin, and I weighed next to nothing. So, my mother, she decided to call me “Slim” and the name just sort of stuck. We all have nicknames in my family. I have one brother named “Fang,” and another we call “Mouse.”

Q: Where and when where you born?

A: I was born in Portland in 1945 and graduated from Portland High School in 1963.

Q: Have you ever held any other jobs?

A: Oh, I worked construction and a few things like that, but the (Portland) Boy’s Club was my first full-time job. I spent about seven years in Portland, first as a part-time employee, then full-time, as the phys. ed. director, overseeing all of the activities and intramural leagues. Then in 1974 I was hired as the unit director in South Portland when we opened it up as a brand new building. I have been here ever since.

Q: What attracted you to the Boys Club job?

A: I have to admit, I didn’t get into it to make a difference in kids’ lives. I got into it because I needed a paycheck. Because of my lack of education, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. It just kind of evolved from there.

Q: How did you get the job?

A: I was just in the right place at the right time. The person who ran the Boys Club had a nervous breakdown and the program director was filling in. So, I was hired to help out, as a part-time person in the games room, just overseeing tournaments – pool, chess, things like that. I enjoyed it immensely.

Eventually, the person who hired me had enough faith in me to recommend me for this position. But really, if we advertised for this job now, the credentials I had at that time, they wouldn’t be sufficient. But the director at the time, he saw something in me I guess. At the time, all I had behind me was my seven years’ experience at the Portland Club, whereas today you’d need that and a degree. In fact, right now, on the entire staff, I’m the only one who doesn’t have a degree.

Q: You mentioned you were just part-time, at first. Did you work other jobs as well?

A: No, no, no. I was living at home at the time, believe it or not. I didn’t get married until I was 25. I knew a good thing when I saw it. All my friends were getting places of their own. But I came from a very stable family. My mother was a great cook and did my ironing and everything else. I’d give her $25 a week for room and board, and then borrow $50. So, I had a great deal. I wasn’t in a hurry to move out of the house. I wasn’t the most ambitious person at the time, but then, when I met my wife, Cheryl, then things changed.

Q: How did you meet your wife?

A: She was from Munjoy Hill (in Portland), same as myself. I never knew her growing up, but I saw her a couple times, walking up the hill, and I thought she looked attractive. I wanted to get to meet her and, as it turned out, she had a couple of younger brothers who came to the Boys’ Club. So, I said, “Look, you suppose you could mention to your sister that I’d like to ask her out?” That kind of paved the way. Of course, she tells it different. She says I “bribed” them.

Q: Where do you live now?

A: Right here in South Portland. My claim to fame is that I belong to a very elite group. I’m a 40-40-40 man. That’s my Triple Crown. I’ve been married to the same woman for 41 years, I’ve lived in the same house for that same amount of time, and I’ve worked for the same organization for more than 40 years. I’m tremendously blessed, with my wife, my work, my family – everything

Q: Did you have any children of your own?

A: I have three grown children, and two grandchildren.

One of the perks of this job is being able to have your kids to work. Oh, they had to toe the line, they didn’t get any special favors, but they got to be here as much as they wanted. And, of course, as I’ve said at the various retirement parties we’ve had since September, when I announced I was getting done, when you honor me, you’re really honoring my wife, because while I was here at the club until 9:30 at night, she was to home, making sure that the kids got their baths and got their homework done. She ran the house, besides working part-time during the daytime.

Q: What have been the biggest changes in the Boys & Girls Club over the years?

A: Well, when I first started, it was just the Portland Club. Then we opened the South Portland Club. Now, we have five locations and we’re the Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine. That’s the official title.

We have a board of directors that’s 33 members strong — all community leaders in the area – and they’re just fantastic. That’s been maybe the biggest change over the years.

Years ago, when I first started, once a month there’d be these gentlemen – it was all men at the time – who’d come in once a month all dressed up in suits and ties, and they’d come in and go up to the board room and have their meeting. I asked a gentleman who worked there, “Who are those people?” and he said, “That’s our board of directors.”

Well, I’d see them once a month when they came in and that was the only interaction we had with them. Other than seeing their name on the stationary, I couldn’t have named five of them. But, now, we have a more diverse board, we have people from all different walks of life, and they are more involved. They raise a tremendous amount of money but they are also here, in the building, helping to serve lunches sometimes, getting to know people on a first-name basis, and just being involved.

So, that’s the No. 1 biggest difference, and I think that’s why we’ve been as successful as we have over the years.

Q: How have the kids who use the club changed over the years?

A: Well, that’s the other big change, after the board, it’s in the kids themselves.

Years ago, if I caught a kid doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing, he’d say, “Please don’t tell my mother and father.” Today, they just look at you and deny they did anything wrong. They will not accept responsibility for their actions. It’s unbelievable.

I think the make-up of their families has changed over the years. The club is located in what’s known as Ferry Village. It’s one of two low-income areas of the city, the other being Red Bank. When we first located here, the families were very poor, yes, but they were intact. If I had a problem, the parents would back me up. They’d respect my authority.

Today, most of the kids come from single-parent families, there’s no discipline at home, and most of the kids we see now, they’re special needs. It’s frightening. A lot of our kids are on medications to calm them down. You have to have a lot of patience. The kids will try you, because things aren’t going well for them, and they need some kind of recognition, and sometimes, even if it’s negative, that’s what they’re looking for.

Q: How do you turn that around, to give them positive reinforcements?

A: Well, you’ve got to remember, it’s not their fault the family structure is no longer in place. It’s not their fault mom and dad got divorced, or that they’re always fighting, or that dad’s an alcoholic, or whatever. I always tell them, use your environment as a motivation, not as an excuse. I’ve been giving that kind of advice to children for 30 years, so that part hasn’t changed.

Q: At what point did you realize that it wasn’t just a job anymore, that you were making a difference in kids’ lives?

A: I don’t know that there’s any one point, but I tell you, since I announced my retirement, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven, pretty much like attending my own eulogy. There was a retirement party and people came out of the woodwork, people up into their 40s who came here as kids, to sing my praises, to say how much this club, and the staff, meant to them. That was a very moving moment.

I had no idea. I mean, you know you’re having an impact on kids’ lives. I realized that a long time ago, but you never know, really, to what extent. Sometimes, it takes a long time for that impact to be realized. You’re so busy living your life that you don’t realize it at the time, but then, when you get older, you look back and realize what an important time in your life that was. So, it was really special to hear people say how much this club had meant to them. It’s been wonderful.

John “Slim” Lee, third from left, ends his career at the South Portland Boys & Girls Club just as he started it 44 years ago, by giving instructions at the pool table, this time to, from left, Chuck McAloon, Mohamed Noh and Cheyne Palmer. (Staff photo by Duke Harrington)

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