Terry Lee’s fingerprints are all over Gig Harbor.
He helped build three schools in the Peninsula School District, he worked on multiple local commissions and many friends joke about the “Terry Lee Special” at The Harvester, where he used to take constituents for breakfast.
Most recently, he was the Peninsula Metropolitan Parks District’s executive director until he decided to retire at the beginning of 2018, giving space for those who plan on running for elected positions in November.
“You’re not running for office again, are you Terry?” Pierce County Councilman Derek Young asked jokingly during a retirement luncheon held in Lee’s honor. “Seriously, I appreciate your dedication to public service. I try to pattern my time in office after Terry.”
Lee said he hoped to slip quietly into retirement and spend more time with his wife and grandchildren, but the lasting effects he left on his community spoke loudly.
“So many people, when they get later on in their career, they forget where they came from,” said Larry Fickel, a member of the Tacoma Narrows Airport Advisory Commission with Lee. “Terry is always the first to volunteer, because you never forgot where you came from.”
A long-standing, civic career
Lee was the PenMet Parks’ executive director for eight years. Before working for the park district, he was an electrician for local construction companies.
He was elected to the County Council for District 7 and served eight years.
“I loved that job,” he said. “I would have run to serve a third term if it had been available.”
To put bread on the table, as Lee puts it, he worked on large construction projects, including the Gig Harbor Civic Center, Peninsula Power and Light’s facility, Kopachuck Middle School, Discovery Elementary School, Bremerton High School and Minter Creek Elementary School.
“I was part of the project management teams,” he said. “My sector was electrical, security, fire alarms, phone … the electrical and wire systems. I worked for a couple of different companies for 29 years.”
Lee was on the first county Land Use Advisory Committee, starting in 1983. Eight years later he joined the county Planning Commission and represented Gig Harbor for 10 years.
After reaching his term limit with the commission, Lee said he still felt like he had a lot to give to District 7, so in 2001 he ran for the County Council and served two-terms. Young succeeded him.
“It’s been 35 years that I have been doing public service, 19 of it after work at night,” Lee said. “Once I was successful for my bid for County Council it became a paid position.”
Lee was expecting to retire after his term with the County Council ended, but was offered a position with PenMet Parks. He planned to work at the district for only a year.
“But it was a good fit and ended up lasting eight years,” he said. “I had a passion for the quality of life, the community spirit that exists on this side of the bridge. I wanted to be a part of the development, and the protection, of this area. The passion to serve the community has never left me.”
Lee is still a member of the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce, the Tacoma Narrows Airport Advisory Board and a few other local boards and commissions.
Out of all the civic projects and legislation he worked on, Lee said, helping the county buy the Tacoma Narrows Airport was one of his proudest moments.
“That will be here after I am gone,” he said.
Tacoma originally owned he airport, which faced large financial issues.
“Because it was separated geographically, it was just an island out there that was a problem,” Lee said. “It had been losing money since 1963. The city manager told me he was going to close it or sell it.”
Lee said he checked with the Federal Aviation Association about Pierce County buying and operating the airport.
“That was a beginning of a long road,” he said. “At a time we were going through a recession, but I knew if we didn’t do it now, we wouldn’t be able to.”
After years of negotiating, the price of the airport went to $3 million from above $20 million and the county bought it in 2008.
“Ever since Pierce County took it over the airport has been in the black,” Lee said. “It continues to grow and improve.”
He also helped build Cushman Trail through Gig Harbor, another star on his career time line.
‘I want to enjoy them’
Lee knew it was time to retire, but wanted to see a few projects come to completion before he left. They included installing turf fields at Sehmel Park, a new $1.2 million maintenance facility for the department’s grounds keeping crew and new restrooms by the playground and soccer field.
“Those were the three projects down by Sehmel,” he said. “I finished those at the end of 2017, and that was one good reason to consider retiring.”
The second reason was because PenMet Parks was in the genesis stage of a indoor soccer facility. Lee wanted to see an executive director start and finish the project, instead of him leaving halfway through the process.
“It will take a lot of design and development,” he said. “Whoever is there to design the project should be there to development. For me to stay another year and to not follow through didn’t make sense to me.”
But the most important reason to retire, Lee said, is to spend more time with his three granddaughters, ages 3, 4 and 6.
“I want to see their soccer games and gymnastics,” he said. “I am 72, and I don’t want to wait till they have to drag me out by my boots. I want to enjoy life before I get old enough that it gets limited. Nothing goes on forever, so I want to enjoy them.”