Some of Maryland's most influential politicians gathered in Silver Spring yesterday to pay tribute to a man who personified political power in Montgomery County for decades. E. Brooke Lee Sr., who also transformed much of the lower county from farmland to suburbia between the 1920s and 1940s, died Sept. 21 at the age of 91.
Pews on one side of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring were filled with members of the Lee family, whose ancestry dates back to the founding of the country; on the other side of the church were local and state politicians, including Gov. Harry R. Hughes and County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist. For all of them, "E. Brooke Lee was like a patriarch," said the Rev. William R. Wooten Jr., who conducted the memorial service.
Politics are "in the genes of the family," joked Lee's son, Blair Lee III, who served as acting governor from 1977 to 1979 and was the chief speaker at yesterday's service.
E. Brooke Lee's father, Blair Lee, represented Maryland in the U.S. Senate. A great-grandfather, Richard Henry Lee, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a U.S. senator from Virginia. A great-uncle was Montgomery Blair, Abraham Lincoln's postmaster general.
One of E. Brooke Lee's grandsons, Blair Lee IV, has long been active in Montgomery County politics and is managing state Attorney General Stephen H. Sach's campaign for governor. Another grandson, David Scull, is a member of the Montgomery County Council.
But few of these men have enjoyed the power or the tremendously varied life that E. Brooke Lee did, nor have they left such a mark. Blair Lee III, 68, telling the congregation that he is suffering from lung cancer, described his father's death from pneumonia as "a blessed release from pain and suffering, and there's no cause for mourning. There's a cause for rejoicing."
Blair Lee III told the congregation that as a young soldier his father had helped chase Pancho Villa into Mexico and was been decorated in World War I. After the war, at the age of 27, he was elected comptroller of the Maryland Treasury -- chief financial officer of the state. He subsequently became Maryland's secretary of state and then speaker of the House of Delegates.
More importantly, Blair Lee III told the congregation, his father changed the face of Montgomery County. Foreseeing that the automobile would make the county "one of the hottest prospects for suburban development in the country," E. Brooke Lee became a major real estate developer.
But Lee's "greatest achievement," his son said, was his work in establishing the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1927, which brought planning and zoning to Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
About the same time, E. Brooke Lee built a "truly formidible political organization" that wrested power from upcounty farmers and courthouse lawyers, and held sway in the county for decades. That power "withered" in the 1940s, Blair Lee III said, with his father's "stubborn, intractible opposition to the county charter movement," which established an elected County Council, thereby abolishing patronage and diminishing the role of the county's state legislators controlled by the Lee organization.
Maryland Comptroller Louis Goldstein said after the service, "You look around the county and you see the fruits of Lee's labor."