Remembering Bill Lee

A quality journalist and a gentleman

The author, a longtime Chico resident, is a former CN&R editor-in-chief.

If you’re younger than 50, the name Bill Lee probably doesn’t ring a bell. There was a time, though, when he was perhaps the most powerful person in town.

For several decades, until he retired in 1983, Lee, who died Oct. 18 at the age of 96, was the executive editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record. There he wielded his editorial pen like a rapier, skewering those whose actions he abhorred—Vietnam War protesters, environmentalists, feminists and the like—without mercy.

It’s hard to understate the influence the E-R, and Lee’s editorials, enjoyed in those days. In 1973, when a group known as the April Committee organized to run, for the first time, progressive candidates for City Council, 21 out of the last 22 council candidates backed by the E-R had won. When two of the April Committee’s candidates prevailed, it was like a dam breaking.

Chico was much different then. There were no bike lanes, no greenways, no Greenline and few parks other than Bidwell. The City Council was interested mostly in paying for cops and firefighters and supporting growth, regardless of the costs of sprawl. The election of progressives changed all that, forcing the council to consider larger issues, such as quality of life.

Bill Lee did all he could to head off the growing influence of liberals in local politics. He was good at it. His editorials were sharply written, and they presented a challenge to progressives to come up with thoughtful responses.

With the rise of a progressive movement in Chico, and an alternative voice in the CN&R, Lee’s hold on local government began to wane. What emerged was a kind of see-saw politics, with progressives and conservatives alternately enjoying majorities on the City Council. This polarized the community to some extent, but it also increased the quality of debate and led, overall, to better council decisions.

I treasure a letter I received from Bill Lee, written after his retirement, praising me for a piece I wrote when Ted Meriam died, in 1991. Meriam was our greatest civic leader after John Bidwell, and I had sought to memorialize that by reviewing his life and accomplishments and putting them in context. I was grateful Lee set aside our historic competition and reached out to me. It reminded me that he was not only a quality journalist, he was also a gentleman.