Funeral for Colorful La. Sheriff
Friday, October 5, 2007; 7:58 PM
WESTWEGO, La. -- Thousands of people paid their respects Friday to longtime Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, the popular, controversial Chinese-American lawman whose flag-draped casket was escorted from a suburban auditorium to the strains of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
Actor Steven Seagal praised the colorful sheriff during a five-hour viewing at his flag-draped coffin.
"He was my best friend, like a father," Seagal said.
Lee died Monday after battling leukemia for months. He was 75. A memorial service followed the viewing at the Alario Center in suburban New Orleans.
In a statement read on his behalf during the service, former President Bill Clinton called Lee "a true original, a man whose love for celebration was trumped only by his heartfelt devotion to duty and steadfast regard for the safety and security of his fellow citizens."
Lee was a larger-than-life figure in Louisiana politics and built a formidable political machine over seven terms. He was one of the last of Louisiana's colorful populist politicians, with a tough, no-nonsense approach to a growing crime problem in his parish.
He was remembered Friday by friends including Edwin Edwards, the former Democratic governor he ardently supported even after Edwards' conviction on corruption charges.
"Farewell, good and true friend," Edwards, who currently is in prison, said in a tape recording. "May flocks of angels carry you home to true rest."
While earning the respect of many residents, Lee was criticized by many in the black community for what they felt were racist tactics after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region on Aug. 29, 2005. Lee's agency faced an upsurge in crime, blamed largely on the illegal drug business that had been dislodged from neighboring New Orleans.
Lee prompted outrage by suggesting his deputies could randomly question young black men in high-crime areas. He later abandoned the plan but made no apologies for it.
"He wasn't politically correct at a time when elected officials feel they have to be," said Andy Wilkinson, an insurance agent and longtime friend. "He told the truth. He was a man of his word. You didn't always have to like his word, but you had to respect him."
A huge papier-mache likeness of Lee in his trademark cowboy hat greeted mourners, along with dozens of placards with Lee's picture and the slogan "A True American Hero." Large photos of Lee with John Goodman, Willie Nelson, Clinton and other celebrities were shown prominently on easels.
Even in a state with a long history of brash and colorful politicians _ fiery orators like Huey and Earl Long _ Lee cut an uncommon figure: a rotund, white-haired Chinese-American with a penchant for western wear and a love of country music.
Lee had announced in April that he was battling leukemia. Although he reported in June that it was in remission, it returned in August. Even so, Lee signed up to run for re-election as sheriff in the Oct. 20 election.