Donald H. Lee, of Coupeville, WA, passed away peacefully on January 2, 2023 at the age of 91. Don was a disciplined, hardworking man, a believer in Jesus, and was loved and respected by his family and the community as a husband, father, grandfather and friend. He was a man who truly pursued excellence, served others and honored the Lord.
Don was born in New Jersey. He grew up in Teaneck and enjoyed a happy childhood with his brother, Rich, and three cousins. Don was always quite industrious, being a paperboy and then a bowling alley pin boy. His favorite job-related story was when he and his cousin David, accepted a job cleaning up a rather large baseball stadium after the Jimmy Foxx All-stars came through town…all for ten bucks! Don graduated from high school as a National Honor Society scholar and then made one of his hardest decisions, to leave home and attend the University of Alabama, well over a thousand miles away. After an emotionally difficult first quarter he got into the swing of college and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1952 as the top member of his Chemical Engineering class. He also was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, but instead of going to Korea, the Army sent him to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California where he helped establish the Army’s emerging guided missile program. He left the Army in 1954 as the Resident Ordinance Engineer but remained on the staff at JPL and became a research and development engineer in the Liquid Rocket Section. Also in 1954, he married Ann Reynolds, who remained his wife and sweetheart for the rest of his life.
He spent the next eight years at JPL doing a significant body of work on Hydrazine, a monopropellant rocket fuel. He culminated his tenure at JPL as a Project Manager overseeing development of the Midcourse Correction System for the Ranger Spacecraft, the first manmade object to impact the moon. While at JPL, he obtained his Master of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Southern California. In 1963, he and his family, now including two sons, Howard and Steven, moved to Princeton University where he served as the Manager of the Guggenheim Propulsion Laboratory and became a certified Professional Engineer. Two years later the family moved back to California and he began working at TRW, a space and defense contractor, where he spent the next 24 years in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually rising to become the Manager of Engineering Operations for the Applied Technology Division as well as a Vice President of a small subsidiary company. He enjoyed an amazing career which spanned the emergence and growth of the space program into what it is today. He and his project teams and researchers worked on the first spacecraft that traveled to Venus and Mercury; the life seeking biology instrument for the first Mars lander; several of the early communications satellites; Pioneer 10, which traveled to Jupiter and became the first manmade object to leave the solar system; the Apollo lunar lander, and many other challenging projects.
He retired at age 57, and he and Ann bought several acres on Whidbey Island overlooking Race Lagoon. They designed and had their dream house built, and moved up to the island in September of 1988, where Don began to put his energy and expertise into the next chapter of his life. While planning and developing his home’s landscape, he became the President of the Race Lagoon Heights Association and he joined the Washington State University Master Gardeners where
he served for many, many years. He became a self-taught “expert” in native plants and gave innumerable lectures around the islands on the native flora of the Pacific Northwest. He was always pleased when someone would stop him at the market to tell him how some planting project was going. Plants and the ground water problems on Whidbey got him interested more broadly in issues involving water management. He served as the Chairman of the Central Whidbey Water Resources Forum and a little later he was appointed to the Island County Water Resource Advisory Committee, where he served as chairman for 20 years. That committee accomplished a great deal on watershed planning, ground and surface water issues, and salmon recovery. His greatest volunteer efforts were devoted to the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens where he worked for over 30 years, first as a volunteer, then later in more significant managerial roles. He was chairman of the garden management group and ultimately served for over 20 years as president of the gardens. Meerkerk Gardens has grown until today they attract over 15,000 visitors a year, which is a true testament to Don’s tireless efforts and heart for service.
He is survived by his son Howard (Maureen) Lee, son Steven (Christy) Lee, grand-children Jessica Heinrichs, Joshua Lee, Brian Lee, and three great grandchildren with one on the way. His memorial service will be conducted at Calvary Chapel Oak Harbor on Saturday, January 21st at 11:00. Memorial donations may be made to Calvary Chapel Oak Harbor (1560 SE 9th Ave, Oak Harbor, WA 98277) and the Don & Ann Lee Legacy Fund, Meerkerk Gardens (PO Box 154, Greenbank, WA, 98253).