Cambria Heights street renamed for Morris Lee

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Hundreds of people from throughout the country gathered in Cambria Heights Sunday to rename part of a street after Morris Lee, a longtime civic leader in southeast Queens who secured thousands of jobs for youth and minorities in the borough.

“This is such a great moment and he’d be so proud,” said Morris Lee’s widow, Martha Lee. “When I think of Morris, I think of the saying that some people wait for the storm to pass and others learn to dance in the rain. Morris learned to dance in the rain.”

After Lee died at the age of 77 in February 2008, Community Board 13 voted unanimously to rename the corner of 228th Street and Linden Boulevard as “Morris R. Lee Place.”

“I’m so ecstatic to be here for a man who was a man above men, a Renaissance man, Morris Lee,” said Community Board 13 Chairman Bryan Block.

Lee was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where his wife and many family members now live, and moved to Cambria Heights in 1968. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees in economics from Queens College and served as the executive director of the Council for Airport Opportunity for more than 30 years.

During that time, Lee managed to help at least 60,000 people of color, women and disabled individuals find jobs in the region’s aviation industry, the council’s current executive director, Philippa Karteron, said.

“The entire southeast Queens community owes a tremendous debt to Morris Lee,” City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said. “Through his organization, I, too, was also the beneficiary of his hard work, getting one of my first summer youth jobs. Mr. Lee was a role model for many of us and today we remember his passion for community service, the advancement of youth services and career development.”

The numerous high-profile officials who attended Sunday’s event emphasized that Lee was someone who was not only involved in numerous organizations to better his community, but consistently inspired others to become involved in public life.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, a Cambria Heights resident, said Lee first reached out to him about serving the community when Walcott and his wife moved to the neighborhood 31 years ago.

“I wouldn’t have this job without Morris grabbing me and saying, ‘You’re going to become involved,’” Walcott said.

Almost immediately upon moving to Queens, Lee involved himself in a wide variety of borough life and served on the board of the Health Systems Agency of New York City, as treasurer of the Queens County Overall Economic Development Corp. and as vice president of Community Board 13. He was a founding member of the Cambria Heights Kiwanis Club.

His active role in the community made him a beloved member of the borough, state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) said.

“He had a mission to help people get employed in an industry where they had a future,” Padavan said.

State Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village), former state Sen. Serphin Maltese, former Councilman Archie Spigner and the Rev. Charles Norris all noted they routinely went to Lee when they needed help with practically anything in the community.

“I want everyone to remember Morris as we do, as that go-to guy who’d get things done — particularly for our children,” Clark said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:48 pm, October 10, 2011
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