Richard Lee - Brookings

Dec. 25, 1934 - Nov. 10, 2018

Staff reports
Posted 11/22/18

Richard Wilson Lee, 83, head of South Dakota State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication for 24 years, taught many of the journalists who filled the state’s newsrooms and several others who achieved national prominence.

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Richard Lee - Brookings

Dec. 25, 1934 - Nov. 10, 2018


Richard Wilson Lee, 83, head of South Dakota State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication for 24 years, taught many of the journalists who filled the state’s newsrooms and several others who achieved national prominence. But for Dick Lee, who died of cancer on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the United Living Center in Brookings, S.D., it wasn’t simply about numbers.

“Dick Lee’s life story is one of love, joy and success,” said former student and South Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director David Bordewyk. “Dick loved nothing more than to tell the success stories of everyone around him.”

Dick was born on Christmas Day 1934 in Belleville, Ill., and began his storytelling career early. At age 8, Dick began writing “The Cub’s Column” for the Marissa (Ill.) Messenger, the weekly newspaper that his parents, Thomas J. Lee and Kathleen Wilson Lee, co-owned with his uncle, Robert S. Lee.

In 1956 Dick earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois where he was in Air Force ROTC. Upon graduation, he went on active duty with the Air Force, spending a year and a half in flight school learning how to fly jets and another year and a half at a remote radar site in Germany controlling missiles. Dick returned to his hometown in 1959 and became the third-generation editor of the Marissa Messenger, following both his father and his grandfather in that role.

Dick earned a master’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Dick taught journalism at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville from 1961 to 1966. He married first wife, librarian Gail Patricia Hayes, in Edwardsville on June 23, 1962. The couple moved to Iowa City for Dick to pursue a Ph.D. in mass communications at The University of Iowa.

 From 1968 to 1977, Dick taught journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park, moving through the ranks of lecturer, assistant professor and associate professor. He wrote two books, “The History of Newspaper Association Managers, Inc.” and “Politics and the Press.” He also worked part-time as a copy editor on the national desk of The Washington (D.C.) Star. Sons Thomas Jennings Lee and Douglas Wilson Lee were born in 1968 and 1973 respectively.

Dick’s first wife, Gail, died of cancer in 1974, leaving him with two small boys to raise alone. Dick married his second wife, MaryJo Benton, on January 2, 1982, in Linthicum Heights, Md. A formal adoption followed, forming MaryJo, Tom, Doug and Dick into what they all wanted to be known as – “a real family.”

Dick accepted the position of professor and head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at South Dakota State University in 1978. He and MaryJo, who has two journalism degrees from the University of Maryland, worked together for 36 years on their shared passions—journalism, diversity and China, to name a few. Journalism Professor Roxanne Lucchesi said “joy” seemed to be Dick and MaryJo’s favorite word. “I think that’s how they both approached life together.”

During Dick’s tenure, the journalism department was reaccredited four times. Dick was also the driving force behind a $2.4 million renovation of the journalism building (Yeager Hall), completed in 2000. The department was the headquarters of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors from 1992 to 1999, while Dick served as ISWNE’s executive director. He received numerous honors for his work including the Freedom Forum Award for the Journalism Administrator of the Year in 2002 and the South Dakota Newspaper Association Distinguished Achievement Award in 1995. He also was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2002. But his most lasting accomplishment, according to students and faculty, was nurturing an environment where others could learn and succeed.

“Dick valued Native American journalism students and including tribal voices in the media long before diversity was a buzzword in higher education,” said Professor Emeritus of Journalism Doris Giago, Oglala Lakota. Doris and Dick took their advanced reporting students to reservations across the state and together helped organize the annual Native American Newspaper Career Conference at the Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer. The Lakota-Dakota conference room, which Dick insisted be added to the journalism building during its renovation, reminds students and staff of the importance of Native Americans in South Dakota.

In 2015, the city of Brookings honored Dick and MaryJo with the Dorothy and Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award, in recognition of “their work as friends and allies of American Indians and for their work with other minorities underrepresented in higher education.”  

Dick and MaryJo lived in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, three times. The first was in 1991 when they served as visiting professors in the SDSU-Yunnan Normal University faculty exchange program. The Lees returned to Kunming in 1997 for MaryJo to conduct her dissertation research and again in 2017 when MaryJo was a Fulbright scholar.

Dick retired as Professor Emeritus of Journalism in 2002, but returned to work in 2007-08 as interim director of SDSU’s Ag-Bio Communications Department. Dick was a member of the McCrory Gardens board of directors, the Brookings Reconciliation Council, SDSU’s Journalism Advisory Council and the Brookings Rotary Club.

He and MaryJo traveled extensively, with trips to San Antonio, Mexico City, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., all made in 2018. Dick, along with MaryJo, loved to entertain friends and family in their home, often topping off the occasion with Dick’s award-winning homemade pie.

Dick is survived by his wife, MaryJo, of Brookings; sons Thomas (TammyJo Eckhart) of Bloomington, Ind., and Douglas of Brookings; sisters Nancy (Dean) Graves of Collinsville, Ill., and Marilyn (Thomas) Boschert of Belleville, Ill.; sister-in-law Lana Hayes (Wayne) Santoni of Edwardsville, Ill.; a niece; three nephews; and a special group he called “his Brookings family.” He was preceded in death by his parents and his niece, Kristine Boschert Polley.

Memorials may be directed to McCrory Gardens or to the Richard and MaryJo Benton Lee Scholarship at the SDSU Foundation.

Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 26, at Ascension Lutheran Church in Brookings. Services will be at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 27, also at the church, with a reception following at McCrory Gardens. Eidsness Funeral Home is assisting the family with arrangements.