Rest in Peace, Harry Lee


by Michael Kunzelman

WESTWEGO, La. (AP) – Hundreds of mourners were greeted Friday by a huge papier-mache head of Harry Lee while images of the populist Jefferson Parish sheriff were shown on jumbo screens and jazz music played during his daylong funeral.

Actor Steven Seagal praised the colorful and controversial Lee during a five-hour viewing at his flag-draped coffin.

“He was my best friend, like a father,” Seagal said.

Lee died Monday after battling leukemia for months. He was 75. A memorial service and burial, complete with a 21-gun salute, were to follow the viewing at the Alario Center in suburban New Orleans. The body was to be taken by motorcade about 10 miles to Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home & Cemetery.

Lee was a larger-than-life figure in Louisiana politics and built a formidable political machine over seven terms. He was one of the last of Louisiana’s colorful populist politicians, with a tough, no-nonsense approach to a growing crime problem in his parish.

While earning the respect of many residents, he was criticized by many in the black community for what they felt were racist tactics after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region on Aug. 29, 2005. Lee’s agency faced an upsurge in crime, blamed largely on the illegal drug business that had been dislodged from neighboring New Orleans.

Lee prompted outrage by suggesting his deputies could randomly question young black men in high-crime areas. He later abandoned the plan but made no apologies for it.

“He wasn’t politically correct at a time when elected officials feel they have to be,” said Andy Wilkinson, an insurance agent and longtime friend. “He told the truth. He was a man of his word. You didn’t always have to like his word, but you had to respect him.”

The papier-mache likeness of Lee in his trademark cowboy hat greeted mourners, along with dozens of placards with Lee’s picture and the slogan “A True American Hero.” Photos of Lee with John Goodman, Willie Nelson, former President Clinton and other celebrities were shown on the huge video screens.

Even in a state with a long history of brash and colorful politicians – fiery orators like Huey and Earl Long – Lee cut an uncommon figure: a rotund, white-haired Chinese American with a penchant for western wear and a love of country music.

Lee had announced in April that he was battling leukemia. Although he reported in June that it was in remission, it returned in August. Even so, Lee signed up to run for re-election as sheriff in the Oct. 20 election.

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