Kathryn C. Lee

Obituary: Kathryn C. Lee co-founded Sacramento Observer newspaper

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013 - 6:51 am

Kathryn C. Lee, a matriarch and businesswoman who opened doors to opportunities for African Americans as a co-founder of the Sacramento Observer newspaper, died Monday of pneumonia, her family said. She was 77.

Mrs. Lee helped start a newspaper to cover stories in the African American community that were ignored by the mainstream press, including The Bee and the Sacramento Union. The effort began when her husband, Dr. William H. Lee, and a group of other investors sat at her kitchen table to pool their money and produce a newspaper called the Sacramento Outlook.

The group split, and the Lees joined partners to publish the first edition of the Sacramento Observer in November 1962. The couple eventually took over the paper as co-publishers, with Mrs. Lee overseeing finances while her husband led editorial and advertising operations.

The Observer grew to be one of the most respected African American papers in the country, winning many awards for coverage by journalists who went on to careers at major newspapers.

"We were challenged to make a little money so it could survive, but this year the Observer is celebrating its 50th birthday," her husband said. "It would not be here if it had not been for her careful monitoring of finances and hiring."

Mrs. Lee used her role at the Observer as a springboard for others in their personal and professional lives. She mentored young people with advice about education and careers.

She networked with other community activists as a longtime member of the Women's Civic Improvement Center. As a former legislative aide, she helped opened doors for young African Americans at the state Capitol.

"When I came to California, she was one of the first people to embrace me and let me write a column for the paper," said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "She was a very nurturing person, and she was so wise about what was going on and so willing to share information."

Born in 1935 in New Orleans, Kathryn Cecilia Charles was 8 when her family moved to Sacramento. Her father, Philip, worked at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, while her mother, Irene, raised five children and was a seamstress.

She graduated from McClatchy High School and attended San Francisco State College.

One of her brothers, Raymond Charles, grew up to be Sacramento's first African American fire chief.

In 1956, Mrs. Lee became the first African American hired by the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. After eight years, she joined the staff of Assemblyman F. Douglas Ferrell, D-Los Angeles, as one of only three African American women working for the Legislature.

"Every chance I got, I would bring black women to interview for jobs," she told The Bee in 2002.

She married her husband, who owned a successful real estate business, in 1961 and had three sons. Their eldest son, Roderick, was a longtime journalist at the Observer who died in 1994.

Mrs. Lee, who received many awards for her civic contributions, balanced work with her role as a homemaker. The Observer was a family operation, where her young sons went after school and her mother managed the office and answered phones.

"Running a business like this wasn't necessarily my mother's life calling, but she embraced it and thrived on it," said her son Larry, the paper's president and general manager. "She had unwavering courage and commitment."

Kathryn C. Lee

Born: Nov. 19, 1935

Died: March 25, 2013

Survived by: Husband, William of Sacramento; sons, William Jr. of Atlanta, and Larry of Sacramento; brothers, Raymond Charles and Donald Charles, both of Sacramento; sister, Iris Sims of Sacramento; five grandchildren

Services: Visitation, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Morgan Jones Funeral Home, 4200 Broadway, Sacramento; funeral, 11 a.m. Monday at Center of Praise Ministries, 1228 23rd St., Sacramento

Remembrances: Donations may be made to Greater Sacramento Arthritis Foundation, 1851 Heritage Lane, No. 183, Sacramento, CA 95815.

Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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