As noted in the guide to Lee’s collection of SMU-related papers housed in DeGolyer Library, Lee enjoyed a long and unique relationship with SMU.
He was born March 23, 1893 in Oakland City, Indiana. His father, Josephus Lee, was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. The family moved to Texas in 1909, and he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity University in 1914.
When Lee graduated from SMU with his Master of Theology degree in 1916, he went on to serve as pastor to several congregations (and as Director of the Wesley Bible Chair at the University of Texas) before returning to Dallas in 1923 to pastor Highland Park Methodist Church for the next 13 years. He briefly taught homiletics in the Perkins School of Theology, but left Dallas briefly to become Dean of the School of Religion at Vanderbilt University.
But his time away from Texas was brief, and he returned as the fourth president of SMU in November 1938. By that point he also had earned a PhD. From Columbia University in New York, making him the first SMU president to have earned a doctorate.
Lee’s 15-year tenure as president included the end of the Great Depression, the U.S. involvement in World War II, and the University’s dramatic changes to accommodate large numbers of veterans who returned from war to enroll at SMU on the GI Bill. Because the University did not have the facilities to house the returning veterans (and the wives who came with many of them), Lee directed the construction of temporary buildings on campus that became known as “Trailerville.” The temporary trailers were located where SMU’s Meadows Museum stands today, and included a nursery school for the children of the returning veterans.
In the last years of Lee’s presidency, a campus building boom and greatly improved University finances allowed SMU to comfortably welcome an increased student population.
Following a heart attack in 1953, Lee resigned as SMU president in 1954. But the Board of Trustees appointed him as chancellor, a position he occupied until his death in June 1958 – a month before he was officially scheduled to retire.
When Lee died, then-SMU President Willis M. Tate said, “More than any other man he is the symbol of the University. To him we owe the stature and accomplishments of Southern Methodist University…He had great dreams for this institution, and it will be the purpose of every member of the University faculty and staff to see that those dreams are fulfilled.”