Dr. Charles Lee
Broadcast Pioneers member Dr. Charles Lee, professor of English, author and cultural arts critic, passed away on Wednesday, November 20, 2002 at 1:30 am from complications associated with a brain tumor. He had also suffered a stroke. He died at his Lower Merion home with his wife, Ruth at his side. He was 89.
Dr. Charles Lee, who was a member of our Board of Directors for many years, once said: “The 1960s, often recalled as a period of turbulence and turmoil, was also a decade of cultural renaissance in which the performing arts flourished throughout the nation.” It was during that decade that Dr. Lee became well known to Philadelphians as part of the famed “John Facenda – WCAU News Team.”
Born Charles Levy in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the day after New Years in 1913, he had a twin brother, David. Both would find fame in their own way and their own right. Brother David Levy eventually left Philadelphia for the glamour of West Coast show business. He was “Vice-President for Programming" at NBC in the late fifties and early sixties. It was David that was responsible for giving us shows like “Bonanza,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and at ABC, “The Addams Family.” David Levy died on January 25, 2000 in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 87 after a lengthy illness. Even though Charles and his brother were on opposite coasts, they remained forever close.
The Levy twins had a younger brother Abner who stayed in Philadelphia and became hugely successful in real estate. Somewhere along the line, Charles decided to shorten his last name to Lee.
Just out of the University of Pennsylvania undergraduate school, twins David and Charles enrolled in the graduate college at Penn. In September of 1934, Charles also took on teaching duties at the university. In that class was a freshman by the name of Eddie Felbin. Ed said, "Dr. Charles Lee was probably the best English teacher I ever had and I had a lot of them." You may know Felbin better by his air name of "Frank Ford." Broadcast Pioneers member Ford co-owned "The Valley Forge Music Fair" and was a local radio talk show host for many years. Married to Philadelphia's District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, Frank said that he and his wife would often run into the Lees at concerts, the theater and parties. While at Penn, Charles worked his way up to Director of Undergraduate Journalism and Vice-Dean of the college's Annenberg School of Communication.
Known for his brilliance, Charles had always been a likable guy. For a short while, Charles moved to Boston to work for the Boston Herald as Book Editor. While there, he married a young lady named Erma Carp from a prominent New England family. In his late twenties, he decided to return to his hometown in 1940 to work as Literary Editor for the Philadelphia Record newspaper, owned by David Stern. After that time, he would always call Philadelphia his home.
After the Second World War, Dr. Lee would again become an instructor of English Literature at Penn, a position he would hold for five decades. It was at that time, he decided to go for his Ph.D at the university, a degree he would receive several years later. When the Philadelphia Record folded in February of 1947, Lee went to the Evening Bulletin along with many of his writer friends from the Stern publication.
In the early fifties, Dr. Lee divorced and married Judy Shinn Kellem in May of 1951 in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The couple had a second ceremony the following year. She is probably much better known to everyone in our area as Judy Lee, an early weathercaster of Philadelphia’s Channel 3 and later co-anchor of NBC’s “Today Show.” According to Broadcast Pioneers member Sam Bushman, Judy and Charles (along with Judy’s children from a first marriage) lived in Chestnut Hill across the street from baseball great, Connie Mack. The Lees divorced in early 1958 and later, Dr. Lee married his third wife, whose maiden name was Ruth Sarah Micali. Charles Lee had two children; a son Myles and a daughter Gail who predeceased him.
In 1965, Dr. Charles Lee was involved in broadcasting and had started doing commentary at WCAU, both radio and TV. The afternoon radio news air staff included Broadcast Pioneers member John Facenda, Mike Stanley, George Lord, John Clough, Broadcast Pioneers member Taylor Grant and Dr. Charles Lee. Their Sports Director was a young guy named Andy Musser (also a member of the Broadcast Pioneers) and Chris Wheeler (fresh from Penn State) did the morning traffic reports.
The TV Lineup was just as impressive with John Facenda, Herb Clarke, Tom Brookshier and Dr. Charles Lee (all members of the Broadcast Pioneers). Charles hosted a series of “Lunches with Authors” at the Bellevue-Strafford Hotel in Center City. Lee said, “We had anybody who was anybody at these events.”
On Wednesday, October 17, 2001, Dr. Lee was a guest on the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s video webcast, “Pioneers in Broadcasting.” On the program he said that he never really wanted to get into broadcasting. It was television that wanted him to be a part of the evolving medium. He said that he considered TV to be a chance to educate more people than he could in a classroom. On that show, Dr. Lee said that for awhile, he also worked at Channel 6. Besides broadcasting, Lee edited literary magazines and wrote 11 books including poetry. In 1960, he started a practice of sending Christmas greeting booklets to friends. Charles wrote the entire contents which included Lee's original poetry. He did this almost every year until 2000. In 1945, he authored, "Weekend at the Waldorf."
When Channel 10 decided that John Facenda wasn’t right for the anchor chair, they also decided that Lee didn’t fit their new image. He was replaced by Dennis Cunningham. "Management told him he was too much like the New York Times when what they really wanted was the Daily News," said Ruth Lee.
Dr. Lee then went to WFLN Radio owned at that time by former Broadcast Pioneers President Ray Green. His interview program aired there for more than a decade until the station switched from its classical music format in 1997. His wife Ruth Lee said that each new owner kept cutting his salary until he was only making a hundred dollars a week. However, Charles Lee kept on going because he loved what he did.
Dr. Charles Lee, a member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia for more than a quarter of a century was often referred in jest as “our resident intellectual,” said former Broadcast Pioneers President John Roberts. The former Channel 6 newscaster and Temple University communications professor continued, “His brilliance was a beacon of shining light glowing throughout our organization.” Lee liked to travel. Charles said that it expanded his horizons. He was also a very skilled and talented artist with many paintings to his credit.
Broadcast Pioneers member and former colleague of Charles, Herb Clarke said, “When he joined our evening newscast in the mid-60’s, he blended his debonair appearance and intellect into the program quite smoothly. I believe were all improved by his presence, including John Facenda." Clarke also said, "he sounded professional, but it wasn't like he was ordering you to do your homework. ...He was the friendly, Mr. Chips kind of professor."
According to Clarke, “He was a brilliant poker player for several decades. Beginning with an every Friday night game in a back room at WCAU-TV and continuing until recent years, he was a regular with the Wings Field Floating Poker Club, which was made up of pilots and broadcasters.” This game included Herb, Charles and Broadcast Pioneers member and anchor of “Eyewitness News” on KYW-TV, Vince Leonard. Clarke continued, “Unlike the rest of us, Charles never raised his voice, showed anger or threatened violence. On rare occasions, he was even a gracious loser.”
Broadcast Pioneers member Vince Leonard, former KYW-TV News Anchor said, "I knew him as a man of great intelligence with an engaging personality. Charles also fit in as 'one of the guys' and had a wonderful sense of humor. His accomplishments in life are well-known and he will be missed and remembered by so many."
“I think if Charles Lee went only to the Post Office, the barber or grocery, he would not leave home without being fully dressed and groomed impeccably,” said Herb Clarke. “Charles Lee was one of the most gentle and cultured men I have known. …Even seated across the poker table, Charles Lee was class.”
On Friday, November 17, 2006, Dr. Charles Lee was inducted into "The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's Hall of Fame."
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member Bill Webber
Compiled, written and researched by Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson
© 2002, All Rights Reserved
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