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CAPE ELIZABETH — Employees at Lee Auto Mall, politicians and others are remembering Shep Lee.
Lee, 83, died Wednesday, June 23, at his Cape Elizabeth home of cancer. He was a groundbreaking car dealer, growing his father’s Auburn dealership to 13 towns and cities.
Born in Lewiston, he was active in politics, a personal friend of Maine governors and others in high offices. People who have served on Lee Auto Mall’s Board of Directors reads like a who’s who of Maine.
And, Lee was remembered as a good, fair boss.
“Shep Lee was a very good man, a generous man,” said Pete Dumas, who works in customer service for Lee Honda. Dumas has worked for Lee for 16 years; his late father spent 45 years with Lee. “Shep Lee was always very good to the family,” Dumas said. “He’ll be greatly missed. The company will not be the same without him.”
John Isaacson, CEO of Lee Auto Malls, described Lee as an unusual person who held a wide range of interests.
“He was not only very successful and well known in Maine, he was well known nationally,” Isaacson said. “He was a visionary, interested in being the first in the business to do what he did.”
In the 1960s he was the first dealer to run television ads. He moved his business to Center Street “when Center Street was the edge of the earth.” He was among the first to own more than one dealership, a pioneer in becoming the owner of a mega dealership.
Lee Auto had an outside board of directors, unusual for a privately owned dealership. People who served, Isaacson said, included Angus King, University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Patenaude, Gene Geiger, and a former CEO of Maine Medical Center Vince Conti.
During the first oil embargo in the 1970s, when sweater-clad President Jimmy Carter urged Americans to conserve, “he went and bought a Cadillac/Oldsmobile dealership. That took some guts,” Isaacson said.
Lee never held office, but was involved in politics, especially the Democratic party. “He’s the only car dealer I know of who’s a Democrat,” Isaacson said with a chuckle. “And he enjoyed that.”
Lee was friends with U.S. Sens. Ed Muskie, George Mitchell and Bill Cohen and Gov. Ken Curtis. He was involved in many campaigns. When Muskie ran for president in 1972, Lee hit the road campaigning with him.
“For many years, if a Democrat in the state wanted to run for governor or Congress, part of the process of putting together the campaign was always a stop to see Shep Lee to get his support,” Isaacson said. “That was key.”
Before Maine had a gay rights law, Lee spoke out in favor of a law, calling it just.
He was described as having a good sense of humor, warm, smart, well-read and someone who loved to talk about a wide range of topics from politics to family. Lee loved to travel, going to Europe in early June even though he was getting weak from cancer.
In 2000, Lee transferred ownership of the business to Isaacson, his son Adam Lee, and a nephew. When he died, Shep Lee retained a small share, Isaacson said.
His business was begun by his father, Joe Lifshitz, who started selling Plymouths and Desotos on Franklin Street in Auburn in 1936. After Lee graduated from Lewiston High School, served in the Navy during World War II, and graduated from Bowdoin College, he joined his father’s business, Advance Auto Sales, in 1947.
Lee and his brother, Harold, changed their last name from Lifshitz to Lee because it was an age of antisemitism.
In a prepared statement, Gov. John Baldacci called Lee “a close friend and confidante and a stalwart supporter of the people of Maine. His tireless advocacy for economic development is unmatched, as is his lifetime of philanthropy and dedication to Maine communities. The ripple impact of Shep’s generosity and leadership will be felt by the people and causes he supported for generations to come.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said Lee spent his life building a business, raising a family and giving back, making Maine a better place to live.
Lee is survived by his wife, Candice, and his four children, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Adam and Catherine.
The family will hold a private funeral, but is planning a memorial to celebrate his life. Details will be announced in the next two months.
Bonnie Washuk is a staff writer for the Sun Journal in Lewiston.