HARRY LEE: HOW THE SON OF A CHINESE IMMIGRANT CHANGED NEW ORLEANS LAW ENFORCEMENT
Decades before Harry Lee was sheriff of Jefferson Parish, he was a geology student at Louisiana State University. He and his family had worked tirelessly to get him there — he was the firstborn son of an immigrant from Toishan, in the South China province of Kwangtung — and he didn’t choose his major. Rather, it was chosen for him. Times were different then, and his father wanted him to study geology, so that was that.
At a geology field camp, one of Lee’s professors pulled him aside and said, “You are leading this group, but you really shouldn’t be a geologist. This is not where you want to be.”
It was true. Harry Lee’s heart belonged to law. Regardless, after graduation, he did a stint in the U.S. Air Force, came home and took jobs in his family’s businesses.
“My grandfather came over just over a hundred years ago,” says Cynthia Lee Sheng, the Council At-Large for Jefferson Parish Division B, and Harry Lee’s daughter. “As best as I can tell, it was 1917, and he opened a Chinese laundry, which wasn’t unusual for the time.”
She says she thinks of it now as being very entrepreneurial, but back then it was likely out of necessity: “He had eight children to feed, and if you are an immigrant, you have got to make it happen for yourself — sell whatever you can, do whatever you can — to make ends meet.”
Her grandfather later opened a barroom, and then a restaurant. In 1959, he opened the House of Lee restaurant on Veterans at Causeway. (At the time, that area was still largely swampland.) Harry Lee helped his father run House of Lee. It was the family business, and that’s simply what you did.
“My father grew up with a mind-set where you work hard for your family to make ends meet,” says Councilwoman Lee Sheng. “All of the siblings had to work very hard in whatever business they were in. They lived closely together and they worked as a family. And that was his upbringing.”
Harry Lee had to convince his father to allow him to go to law school. The family patriarch was reticent, and only after the future sheriff agreed to continue managing the restaurant while attending classes did his father come around. Had it not been for that impassioned argument (something that would serve the lawyer well), he might have simply managed the restaurant for the rest of his life. But the younger Lee was now standing on his own, and his career was set in motion.
He eventually earned his law degree, passed the bar exam and opened a small practice. By 1975, he was the chief attorney of Jefferson Parish, but much bigger things were ahead. In 1979, he threw his hat into the ring — in some ways literally — to be sheriff.
Cynthia was only 12 at the time, and she stayed home from school for what would be a day that changed her family’s life. Her father and his campaign advisors were talking in the family living room, trying to figure out their first campaign commercial. “My dad went into the bedroom,” she says, “and then he busted out — I can still hear the door open — and he had his cowboy hat in his hand, and asked, ‘What if I wear this?’” He put the hat on his head.
“I remember as a 12-year-old going, oh no. I was mortified. Please do not wear that.” But that’s who her father was. It was no show, no gimmick. He was a cowboy boot-wearing hunter and fisherman — a Louisiana boy. Deno Seder, his campaign advisor, understood this immediately and wanted to give the cowboy hat a shot.
For the commercial, the Lees walked on the levee behind their house and, when it aired, word of this “new sheriff in town” spread like wildfire, changing the course of the campaign.
“It hit the public in a strange and beautiful way,” says Cynthia. “Here is this overweight Chinese man who looks completely natural with his cowboy hat on, and his boots, and it came across that this is who he was, and they took to it. It was so authentic, and the pubic loved it.”
The family would later hear from moms who said that, when their kids played in the front yard, with little cowboy hats on their heads and stars pinned to their shirts, they weren’t playing cowboy; they were playing Harry Lee.
Harry Lee went on to serve as sheriff of Jefferson Parish for the next 28 years. He was re-elected six times by wide margins. He was larger than life — the sort of celebrity from a different era of Louisiana politics — and voters and the national press couldn’t get enough of him, this highly interesting Chinese sheriff in the Deep South who wore a cowboy hat and shot nutria with the SWAT team.
One of Lee’s strengths was his ability to work with and through many people. He was a natural at pairing people to bring out their combined best, and he built a large network of friends that grew of its own volition — people helping people. Being sheriff doesn’t mean riding your horse with a shotgun-wielding deputy by your side — at least, not most days. A lot of it is just managing a bureaucracy with efficiency, so that your decisions can be turned into actions. And Harry Lee was a natural at that.
In his daughter’s estimation, his greatest success in Louisiana politics was demonstrating how you can be completely successful by being yourself, and by being honest. “He didn’t know how to lie,” she says. “He told the truth, and he was not going to live his life any other way. He was not going to compromise who he was — and he was successful.” There’s so much discussion today about how a politician has to be clever but, says Cynthia, “He didn’t have a clever bone in his body. Telling the truth was such a strong principle to him that he couldn’t do it any other way.”
BEHIND THE SHERIFF’S STAR
Harry Lee’s achievements as a sheriff are well-known and practically written into the DNA of New Orleans. Less well-known is Lee as a father and husband to wife Lai.
“Because he was a law enforcement man, people want to think he had a gruff exterior,” says Cynthia, “but he was really one of the warmest people that I’ve ever met.” She thinks that on some level people knew that, accounting for some of his popularity. Lee was self-deprecating, with a great physical sense of humor. He loved to make fun of himself, she says, and when he laughed, his laugh was like that of a child — from the gut, every fiber of his being seeming to go into that laugh.
He was a warmhearted father, who, despite being sheriff, gave his daughter a lot of slack to make her own mistakes. When she was a teenager, he sat her down and explained that over the next couple of years, she might make mistakes like doing drugs or getting into trouble, and that was OK, but she needed to understand that such things are bad for you. “I was shocked he took that approach,” says Cynthia. She says he had a realistic view of things, and understood that people have to live their own lives, needing only a light hand to stay the proper course. “And for that reason, I never got into trouble!” she says. “I think if he had been strict at home, I would have been more of a rebellious teenage girl.”
Later in life when Cynthia had children of her own, Lee’s soft side really came out. “There was complete joy on his face, and complete joy just being in the presence of his grandchildren.”
In 2007, Lee was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. His family wanted time to process the news, and wanted him to process the news in private. So his office issued a press release that didn’t discuss the diagnosis, and that made Lee deeply uncomfortable. It was like he was lying to the public. He couldn’t wait, and wasn’t interested in waiting, to find the right course of treatment. He needed to tell the public, and in the very next interview that came along, he revealed the bad hand he had been dealt.
Cynthia considers the last six months of Lee’s life to be among her most treasured memories of her father, because of the lessons she learned from the example he set. She watched her father face mortality up close, and it was life-changing for her. “He was so humble, so grateful for the incredible life he had lived. He never thought he would have had a life like this.”
After he went public with his diagnosis, Jefferson Parish, in ways big and small, revealed how they felt about the man who had served them for so many decades. Near the end of his life, Lee would walk into a restaurant, and everyone would break out into spontaneous applause. Cynthia says it shocked him, that he couldn’t believe he had really lived this life.
“There was an understanding on his part that this was the end of his life, but he wasn’t afraid or bitter that he didn’t get to live longer. He was grateful for the 75 years that he had.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Lee passed his love of public service on to his daughter. “When I was young, I went to D.C. and I went to all the monuments and read the words, and was so moved by this ideal of America and what it is and how it’s a nation of immigrants — that it’s a strength we have.” She ended up working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and, in 2009, she was elected to the 5th District seat on the Jefferson Parish Council. In 2015, she was elected to the Division B seat as Council At-Large. Today, she is running for Jefferson Parish president.
“I never would have thought I would be an elected official, ever. It’s nothing I thought I would ever have pursued. But I have this belief in our country that was rooted in watching my father in public service.”
Her father is still part of Jefferson Parish and the city of New Orleans. He loved Carnival season, and every year he rode in parades and threw magnets bearing his likeness to the crowds. The annual Harry Lee magnets became popular collectibles, and still adorn area refrigerators to this day. And people still come up to Cynthia and say that, while they didn’t know him, they liked her father and voted for him. Her reply: “No, you knew him. He’s just like he was on TV. That person you saw and liked and thought he was? That really was him.”