Unsung Hero: John 'Slim' Lee, pillar for boys and girls

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SOUTH PORTLAND — John “Slim” Lee is a rock.

For 41 years, he’s been married to the same woman (Cheryl) and he has lived in the same house. And, after seven years with the Portland Boys Club (when it was just for boys), he spent 37 years as unit director of the South Portland Boys and Girls Club, before his retirement on June 1.

How did a guy like Lee get to be a guy like Lee? A solid home foundation no doubt played a role.

“I grew up in Munjoy Hill in Portland with my parents and two brothers,” he said. “My parents were very loving and very hardworking. We were poor, but we didn’t know it.”

Lee did not begin his long career with the noble intention of making a difference in the lives of young people. Rather, he needed a job.

“I was hired to help out at the Boys Club as a part-time person in the games room, and I enjoyed it immensely,” he said.

Lee’s effective way of interacting with young people impressed the organization, and he assumed the directorship of the South Portland Boys and Girls Club in 1974.

What had been just a job became a calling. Lee was hooked; he really did want to lead an organization that created a life-changing environment for young people. “The Boys and Girls Club provides a safe haven for kids to have fun under adult supervision,” he said. “It’s a great alternative to being on the streets.”

Lee noted that the club serves 125 to 150 kids during the school year and about 160 to 165 kids in the summer.

“Summer time is the busiest, with parents working,” he said. “It costs only $5 a year for a membership, so this is the best game in town for low-income parents.”

Having worked so long at the same organization with the same goal (changing lives), Lee gained wisdom on young people, parenting, and societal trends.

• On “bad” kids: “There are no bad kids; there are just bad parents. Too often, parents are looking for a quick fix; what they really need to do is provide tender loving care.”

• Advice to parents: “Be patient. Be understanding. Be tolerant. They’re just kids. They’ll make mistakes. You have to be supportive.”

• Advice to kids: “A lot of kids come from terrible home environments, and they should use that to motivate themselves. I tell them, ‘Don’t let it get you down. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Develop good habits. Work hard.’”

• On the change in kids over the years: “We have a lot more kids now with special needs. Too often, we put labels on kids and prescribe medication.”

• On the change in society: “In today’s society, everything is instant. We need to slow down and take care of each other.”

• On the future of the South Portland Boys and Girls Club: “I wanted to be sure that they had the right person to replace me and they do. Jennifer Pierce, the new director, has a great rapport with kids. And the rest of the staff is fantastic.”

Lee said he has no regrets about his career choice.

“I loved my job. I got to work with kids, and every day was different,” he said. “I’d go home at night and think ‘I can’t believe they’re paying me for this.’”

As to his retirement years, Lee said he’ll spend more time with his three grown children (all local) and grandchildren. He’ll work on his golf game. It’s also a safe bet that Lee will drop by the South Portland Boys and Girls Club from time to time, just to see how things are going.

He’ll never forget why he did what he did for so many years.

“We have to protect and support our young people,” Lee said. “They’re our greatest natural resource for the future.”

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John “Slim” Lee spends time with young members at the Boys and Girls Club in South Portland.

Unsung Heroes

Part of a twice-monthly series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net

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