devoted father and grandfather, Vietnam veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and all-around force of nature, died at his home in Houston Tuesday. He was 68.
Lee, who always seemed younger than his actual years, leaves a rich legacy despite being taken too early: journalists around the country who learned under his tutelage, education reform in Mississippi prompted by hard-hitting stories under his direction; friends kept from getting too comfortable in their opinions thanks to his impassioned, contrarian arguments.
Lee's team of reporters at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger won the Pulitzer, journalism's loftiest achievement, for a series of 30 reports on problems in the state's public education system. The series, which won the 1983 Pulitzer for Public Service, concluded as state legislators convened in a special session that resulted in such reforms as mandatory kindergarten, a stronger attendance law and new taxes.
The Clarion-Ledger was one of a number of newspapers in Lee's journalistic career, which began as a reporter at the Pensacola (Fla.) Journal and ended at the Houston Chronicle, where he was the projects editor. In between he worked at the Lakeland (Fla.) Journal, the Washington headquarters of USA Today and the Monroe (La.) News-Star, where he was executive editor.
Lee, a Marine captain, flew helicopters in Vietnam in the late 1960s, averting death on a couple of occasions. Once, after landing, his crew found a 50-caliber slug embedded in the vehicle's rotor shaft, potentially catastrophic damage. Another time, his last flight, he survived landing on top of a tree after part of his helicopter exploded.
Still, none of Lee's career experiences fully capture his fun and colorful nature. He loved rhythm 'n' blues, Scotch, superhero comic books, the South, any excuse to have a party, history, spirited political debates, blondes, the printed page, going out for drinks, guitar solos, football, Cajun food and the novels of Nabokov. But most of all he loved his daughter Gretchen and granddaughters Ellie and Grace, on whom he could dote with the best of any grandparent.
Lee is remembered for his passion for the truth, his unswerving loyalty to the people and things he loved and the soft heart all too visible beneath his sometimes curmudgeonly exterior.
Lee is survived by Gretchen Botha her husband Mario Botha and their children, Ellie, 4, and Grace, 2, all of Pearland; and sisters Sue and Betty. He was preceded in death by a son, Ben, and former wife, Sidney Ellis Smith.
Lee will be cremated, but celebrations of his life, in the style party in which he specialized, are being planned in Houston and Jackson.
In lieu of flowers, an education savings account has been established at Regions Bank for Lee's grandchildren. Donations can be made to the Lee Cearnal Memorial Education Fund for Ellie and Grace Botha c/o Liz Cleveland, 3965 Council Circle, Jackson, MS, 39206.
Published in Houston Chronicle on Jan. 20, 2013