My friend, Sheriff Harry Lee, died October 1, 2007, at the age of seventy-five. Harry and I didn’t always agree on professional issues. As an example, for years I begged him to not allow his bailiffs to wear guns in my courtroom because it created a potentially dangerous situation. Harry defended this practice, but attempted to allay my fears by telling me, “Our bailiffs have special holsters and only they can get the gun out of their holsters.”
The good sheriff may have been right because when the six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-thirty pound young man built like an oak tree decided to go for my bailiff’s gun, he didn’t get it out of the holster…he just tore the holster, gun and all, off Kevin Smith’s belt. Kevin, much a man himself, tussled with the young defendant until additional help arrived. Nobody got hurt, but, for awhile, the berserk kid with the gun was Boss in my courtroom. But, even after that incident, Harry still didn’t see it my way.
I became a bit vexed at Harry when he bragged to the local media that he had found an abused child in a local hospital. Those of us in Juvenile Court had seen abused and neglected children day in and day out for years. I became so incensed about Harry making this a media event that I told the press, that if Harry had just spent one day in my court he could have seen many abused and neglected children.
When the media, including the national media, accused Harry of being racist, I found that to be absurd. Harry may have been stubborn and less than articulate about some of his policies and police procedures. But, as I frequently reminded friends, how could a Chinese kid raised by non-English speaking parents, behind their laundry in New Orleans during the thirties and forties not understand the plight of minorities? Harry was re-elected for six straight terms of office by large majorities of not only the predominately white community but also the black community of Jefferson Parish as well.
I remember well when Harry decided to challenge the popular incumbent sheriff for his job. While I was having dinner at the House of Lee, the large Chinese Restaurant owned and run by Harry and his family, Harry approached my table and asked to talk to me. At this time, I had been on the bench about four years, but had known Harry for years when he was a Federal Magistrate and the Parish Attorney. When Harry sat down, he informed me, “I have decided to run for Sheriff.”
I responded’ “Fine, Harry. You will make a great Sheriff, but it will be a tough race against the popular incumbent sheriff.”
He said, “I know that and I have already come up with my campaign slogan– ‘I ain’t got a Chinaman’s chance.’”
This was typical of Harry’s good humored, unvarnished, direct approach to any situation. Harry loved people and they loved him back. Harry freely admitted publicly that he craved and needed the love of as many people as he could reach. I have always admired Harry’s honest acknowledgment of this basic human need we all share.
Stories abound about Harry’s skills as a hunter and fisherman. Trophies of his outdoor quests decorated his offices. When one exited the elevator on the second floor of his Gretna office, they came face to face with an eight-foot, snarling brown bear, six-inch claws slicing the air at the end of raised arms. The unexpected sight of an irate giant bear six-feet ahead–in attack stance–caused the unaware to gasp for breath. Harry’s private office contained a specimen of each animal that disembarked from Noah’s Ark. These trophies hung from walls and sat upon pedestals, creating the appearance of an animal mortuary.
When I hunted dove with Harry in Bridge City, I didn’t have the fear of getting shot by an inebriated hunter like I did when I hunted deer with my cousin in North Louisiana. A tee-totaller, Harry didn’t tolerate booze on a hunt, but did insist on having himself and his guest properly fed with the best food the community could provide. The meat from Harry’s many hunting escapades contributed to an annual event known as The Wild Game Dinner, which is still celebrated annually in Westwego, Louisiana. Politicians from all over the region attend this all-male event and a spirit of détente prevails. Most dinners end peacefully.
Although hefty and struggling with painful knees, Harry rarely missed a bird or anything else he took aim on. On the day at Bridge City, Harry’s game bag came home full—one shell for one bird. I on the other hand expended many shells for few birds.
The nutria Harry and his deputies shot in the canals of Jefferson Parish didn’t find their way to the table at The Wild Game Dinner. Nutria are the vegetarian rodents that were imported to Louisiana in the early part of the twentieth century to help rid the bayous of excess water lilies. Their pelts proved to be valuable as well. But, the little devils had prodigious appetites and ate not only the water lilies, but any other crop they could find. Also, they grew large and followed the biblical instruction to go forth and reproduce—and they did so with vigor.
The nutria came to inhabit the drainage canals of Jefferson Parish in large numbers, frightening Harry’s loyal supporters. Various efforts were tried to eradicate the pesky varmints-all to no avail. Harry had the solution. He and the other sharpshooters on his force would shine them with spot lights at night and shoot them—a procedure usually reserved for gators. This, of course, horrified the animal rights people, but Harry saw it as a dignified way to solve a very real health problem. And, besides, it gave his men some needed target practice.
Harry’s annual Christmas Parties were legendary events in the New Orleans community, a place where partying is practiced with extravagance every day of the year except in Lent. And even then, exceptions are made for such occasions such as St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day.
Thousands of Harry’s loyal followers attended his Christmas Parties. The bands played loudly all night, and the endless booze and food came nonstop, compliments of Harry and his generous friends. All who arrived stopped by Harry’s table to pay homage. This satiated Harry’s need to be loved—at least for that day. Sometimes such notable friends as Willie Nelson and Steven Seagal would show up at Harry’s parties.
Harry also entertained his many admirers by leading the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse in Mardi Gras Parades. Every time I saw Harry astride his mount, I wondered how he got his considerable bulk in the saddle. Most of us who viewed the parades had sympathy for the poor over-burdened animal.
The lovable sheriff hired the best and most colorful political advisors and media consultants to conduct his campaigns for re-election. There was always some person that thought he could do a better job than Harry. Maybe they could have, but none of Harry’s opponents seemed to truly understand how beloved Harry was in the community. Therefore, challenger after challenger took him on to both their dismay and considerable reduction of their fortune.
I remember one ad in particular that ran incessantly during one of Harry’s campaigns for re-election. Harry’s media wizards dressed three of Harry’s ardent, elderly, female supporters in period clothes. Picture three blue-haired ladies clad in red sequined 1920’s flapper outfits, singing and dancing to the tune of “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The production contributed to Harry’s re-election and remains a classic political ad.
Harry, we who shared time and responsibilities with you will miss you. Your detractors will even miss you. After all, your resolute, brave assertions about things you believed in strongly gave them targets to shoot at that they will have no longer. I don’t know who will succeed you, but they will not have more of a love of the job, or be more colorful and beloved than you.