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Public Garden’s greatest friend

Henry Lee steps down after 41 years of safeguarding Boston’s green spaces

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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Boston’s Public Garden hit bottom in the 1970s, when graffiti stained the statues, the bridge over the lagoon was crumbling, and sections of the iron fence were missing, like teeth knocked out of a smile.

Alarmed by crime and drugs in the park, neighbors convinced a school teacher named Henry Lee to serve as the first chairman for the nascent Friends of the Public Garden. Thirty people gathered for the first meeting in Lee’s home on Mount Vernon Street.

“He was told that this wouldn’t take much of his time,’’ said Eugenie Beal, a resident and longtime member. “But it did — for 41 years.’’

Today, after helping to build a $17 million, 2,500-member organization that has become a formidable guardian of the nation’s oldest green spaces, Lee will formally retire from the Friends, leaving a legacy of battles to protect the garden and its sister parks, the Boston Common and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

One of the group’s most dramatic achievements lies in what is not there: massive high rises along Boylston Street that would have cast shadows over the Public Garden and Common. Lee and the newly formed friends took on Mayor Kevin H. White’s administration and fought the Park Plaza development, which was scaled back significantly and pushed a block from the parks.

One of the city’s chief development officials at the time, Boston Redevelopment Authority chief Robert T. Kenney, now lives in an apartment overlooking the park. And he is glad Lee’s group prevailed in scaling back a development he now believes could have squandered some of the parks’ best qualities.

“I thank Henry a thousand times for not letting me screw it up,’’ Kenney wrote in a tribute that will be presented to Lee this evening at the Friend’s annual meeting.

As Lee takes the title of president emeritus, the organization is set up to last. Endowments will pay for upkeep of the restored sculptures, memorials, and fountains. The budget includes money for tree pruning and injections to combat Dutch elm disease. A capital fund-raising campaign has spearheaded major projects.

Most importantly in recent years, the Friends have added part-time workers and a paid executive director, Elizabeth Vizza, who works full time and has taken over day-to-day operations. That represents a stark change from the first several decades, when Lee was the sole staff member. Friends joked that Lee’s Yankee thrift prevented him from hiring help, leaving him to lick the stamps when he wrote thank-you notes to donors.

“If I would have dropped dead five or ten years ago, the Friends probably would have died with me,’’ said Lee, 86, who never took a salary for his 41 years of work. “But it is no longer a one man band.’’

Lee stopped after saying “one man band’’ and quickly added that credit belonged to an army of people. It was a rare slip for an understated and self-deprecating man who has used humility as a weapon to advocate ferociously, albeit politely, for the parks.

“He’s hands-on Henry,’’ said Lyn Paget, whose family has operated the Swan Boats since 1877. “His role was really to catalyze the Public Garden’s return to what my father would say is its original beauty and tradition.’’

Born in Beverly Farms, Lee came from a storied Brahmin family. His relatives include Governor Francis W. Sargent; Elliot Lee Richardson, the US attorney general who stood up to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal; and Henry Lee Shattuck, a state legislator and a Boston city councilor who founded the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Shattuck had a particularly strong influence on Lee, instilling in him the idea of “giving back to your community and preserving and protecting the things that you value in your city,’’ said Lee’s oldest child, whose name is also Henry.

Lee went to Harvard and Stanford universities before joining the Foreign Service and working in Washington and Europe as a diplomat. He moved to Beacon Hill in 1958 and taught at the Dexter School in Brookline. Then the Friends group and the Park Plaza controversy drew him into public life.

“My father started his civic career at 55 years old,’’ said the younger Henry Lee, 63, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “This is what he really loves, to play a role in public policy and give back to his city. My mother’s surprised he’s stepping down.’’

With his background as a diplomat, Lee understood early on that the Friends had to be a partner with the city’s Parks Department, not an adversary. The group raised money and tackled projects the city could not afford.

One fight was against Dutch elm disease, a blight that for a time killed 20 trees a year on Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Trees had to be injected with a treatment, a laborious process that involved drilling holes in trunks. One summer, Lee injected 15 elms himself.

“Henry Lee will never retire,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “He loves green space too much. He might be stepping aside, but he’s not going to step down.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.