Less than a week after he was awarded his sixth honorary doctor of law degree, this time from the university he once presided over, Rex E. Lee died Monday of respiratory failure. He was 61.
Mr. Lee, who retired as the 10th president of Brigham Young University in December and was a U.S. solicitor general during the Reagan administration, lost a 10-month on-and-off fight with pneumonia.Janet Lee was with her husband when he died at 1:23 p.m., Utah Valley Regional Medical Center spokesman Anton Garrity said.
At a BYU convocation last Tuesday, Mr. Lee, along with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was awarded the honorary degree. Janet Lee accepted the recognition in her husband's behalf.
On Monday, family members, friends and colleagues praised Mr. Lee as a great family man, a brilliant and tireless lawyer and a guileless, spiritual giant. (See accompanying story.)
"I will be eternally grateful to have
shared Rex's life with him. The outpouring of prayers, love and concern have been genuinely felt and sincerely appreciated," said Janet Lee.
Mr. Lee resigned Dec. 31 from his BYU post where he served more than six years. The resignation followed last summer's announcement that cancer left him too weak to effectively lead the university.
Presiding Bishop Merrill J. Bateman of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints replaced Mr. Lee Jan. 1. Bateman is the first general authority of the church to be named BYU president.
"The BYU community is deeply saddened at the passing of former President Rex E. Lee," Bateman said Monday. "With his wife by his side, he presided over the university community for almost seven years. In spite of the health challenges he faced, including two forms of cancer, his leadership was en
ergetic, spiced with wit and full of optimism."
Mr. Lee had been challenged with health problems since 1987 when he was diagnosed with a fast-spreading, T-cell immunoblastic lymphoma. The cancer went into remission after aggressive treatment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
But in 1990, an indolent form of the cancer was found by an NIH oncologist performing a skin biopsy on Mr. Lee. Although incurable, it could be controlled. Doctors assured Mr. Lee and his family that it would not affect his ability to function as president of the nation's largest church-owned university.
For the past couple of years Mr. Lee also suffered from peripheral neuropathy, a damage to the nerves in his arms and legs.
Mr. Lee cited these and other health reasons when he announced his resignation June 18, 1995, after asking the BYU Board of Trustees to release him from his duties.
In an interview with the Deseret News last fall, Mr. Lee said the request was one of the most difficult he has ever made, and he referred to the presidential years as "glorious" for him, his wife and their family.
Mr. Lee took the BYU helm after President Gordon B. Hinckley, then first counselor in the LDS Church's First Presidency, announced on May 12, 1989 that he was to succeed Jeffrey R. Holland.
Mr. Lee had returned to Provo in 1985 after serving four years in Washington, D.C., as U.S. solicitor general under President Reagan. As the presidential advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court, the solicitor general represents the Justice Department before the high court.
Mr. Lee argued an unprecedented 59 cases before the Supreme Court, mostly as solicitor general from 1981 to 1985.
"That's like three lifetimes' worth," remarked U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, a close friend of Mr. Lee, on Monday.
To the surprise of no one, during Mr. Lee's latest stay at the hospital, he was preparing case No. 60 to be presented before
the nation's high court later this month.
After retiring from his presidential post, Mr. Lee devoted more time to his career law firm of Sidley & Austin, where he was a partner in the Washington, D.C., office.
According to many friends and colleagues, including his wife, practicing law was where Mr. Lee felt most comfortable. As a gifted scholar and academician, Mr. Lee was also a dedicated defender and teacher of the law.
In 1980, Mr. Lee and former Chief Justice Warren Burger founded the American Inns of Court, a movement designed to improve the skills, professionalism and legal ethics of the bench and bar across the nation.
The objective was to allow younger attorneys the time to spend with a mentor each month, be it in court, in deposition or in the office, observing and discussing what had been observed. Many of the country's top judges and attorneys have called the endeavor the best vehicle to restore professionalism and civility in the courtroom.
At the time he was selected BYU president in 1989, Mr. Lee was the J. Reuben Clark Law School's George Sutherland Professor of Law.
But Mr. Lee's ties to BYU stretch through several decades. He was BYU student body president and received his bachelor's degree in 1960. Twelve years later, he was founding dean of BYU's law school.
During his presidential tenure at BYU, Mr. Lee set out several ambitious goals, which included timely graduation, academic freedom and fund-raising.
The opening of the Museum of Art at BYU, an increased boom of building construction on campus, more married student housing and an emphasis that BYU is a strong undergraduate institution were also focal points of his administration.
Perhaps the most criticism Mr. Lee faced while in office was the question of academic freedom and the official stance of the church-owned school. During Mr. Lee's tenure, a statement was drafted and formalized to define how the religious mission of the university would coexist with academia.
In the Deseret News interview last fall, Mr. Lee said the adoption of the academic freedom statement and the reason behind it were two of the most significant things that happened during his presidency.
"The academic freedom statement reaffirms the importance of academic freedom both on the institutional level and the individual level, but what it ends up saying, most importantly, is the fairly simple and very common sense proposition that you can speak and write and act as you choose, except when what you do adversely affects the interest of the church that pays your salary," Mr. Lee said.
And with BYU so heavily supported by the LDS Church, "it simply is not unreasonable for the church to say we do not want these resources being used in a way that will hurt the church itself," Mr. Lee said.
When he was appointed founding dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School in November 1971, Mr. Lee was highly praised.
"The appointment of Rex Lee, one of the most gifted and admired graduates of his generation at our law school, is a great beginning for the new law school at Brigham Young University," said Dean Phil C. Neal of the University of Chicago Law School.
"Rex Lee is an extraordinarily talented young man," Justice Byron White of the U.S. Supreme Court said. "I am delighted he has assumed this important task at Brigham Young."
When Mr. Lee returned to the university in 1985 to teach constitutional law, Carl S. Hawkins, then dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, said: "We are delighted to have Rex back as a teacher and colleague. His experience as solicitor general, combined with his earlier scholarship, makes him one of the nation's leading authorities on constitutional law."
Nearly 25 years later, when Mr. Lee retired from BYU, the praise continued.
"President Lee and his wife, Janet, have given their hearts to the university and the university family has given its love in return," Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve said last November. "I have seen that mutual affection when he has been at the podium speaking to large audiences and when visiting with individual faculty and students. Partly he draws their warm response with his unfailing good humor and his complete commitment to Brigham Young University and anybody associated with it.
"But even more I think it stems from his capacity to see the best in anyone he meets," said Elder Eyring, who is also church education commissioner. "I have been blessed by that generous appraisal of me, and I can tell you that it makes you want to do better than your best. That effect will last in my life as I know it will in the life of the university."
"Any assessment of the contribution of President Rex Lee should not ignore his vital and leading role in the founding of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU," said Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve. "His contribution thereto was enormous."
Mr. Lee is survived by his wife, Janet; and their seven children and their families: Diana; Tom; Wendy; Michael; Stephanie; Melissa; and Christie.
Funeral services are set for noon Friday, March 15, at the Provo LDS Tabernacle. A viewing will be held Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Oak Hills Stake Center, 865 E. North Temple Drive in Provo and at 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday at the stake center.