The daughter of a former Kent Police chief expected questions about her father would pop up soon after the recent protest in Charlottesville, Va., against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“City of Kent Police Department Robert E. Lee Memorial Building,” reads the large letters on the west side of the police station at 221 Fourth Ave. S.
“Oh my gosh, I figured they’d get a million inquiries about my dad,” said Vicki (Lee) Schmitz, the daughter of the man who led the police force for 18 years from 1948-66.
Mayor Suzette Cooke talked about the former police chief during her report Aug. 15 to the City Council. She responded after someone posted a comment on the Kent Police Facebook page, asking what the department was going to do about the name on its building after the events in Charlottesville.
“Considering the fact the most recent activities that have gone on over a certain Robert E. Lee statue, I thought I would bring to your attention to our own Robert E. Lee with whom we have a great pride in what he accomplished in this city,” Cooke said to the council.
Kent City Hall expanded in the early 1990s when crews remodeled the old King County library to accommodate the police department, which had been in City Hall. The police headquarters were dedicated on Sept. 18, 1992, in memory of former Chief Lee, who died in 1985. He was born in 1911.
“Chief Lee was highly regarded in this community for both civic and law enforcement leadership roles,” Cooke said. “It is an honor that our Kent police headquarters are named in his memory.”
Schmitz, of West Seattle, enthusiastically responded to a request from the Kent Reporter to share her father’s story. She wanted people to know about the Robert E. Lee the police headquarters is named after.
Lee was born in 1911 in Kentucky to George and Alice Estes Lee, who died during the birth of Robert E. Lee. George Lee moved his family to Montana, where Robert E. Lee grew up before joining the U.S. Navy at age 18 in 1929. He decided to live in Seattle after his four years of service. He married Ann Ellen Sund. They had two children, Vicki and Robert E. Lee Jr.
“It was 1933 in the middle of the Great Depression,” Schmitz said about her parents settling in Seattle. “My dad sold books and did odd jobs.”
In the late 1930s, Lee went to work for the King County Sheriff’s Office and moved his way up to chief of detectives. The city of Kent recruited Lee in 1948 to be its police chief.
Schmitz was 8 and her brother 6 when the family moved to Kent. They lived downtown for one year at a house since torn down. Officers now park their patrol vehicles where the family used to live before moving to Scenic Hill just east of downtown. Schmitz graduated from Kent-Meridian High School in 1957 and just last week attended her 60th reunion.
“He was the most honorable man ever and one of the most respected men,” Schmitz said about her father.
Kent Police had only five officers when Lee took over as chief in the town of about 3,000 people. The force had 15 officers and three clerks when he retired.
“He put professional standards in place,” Schmitz said. “He only hired university grads, even though he didn’t have a degree.”
When Lee told the council he planned to retire to go into private work, City Attorney John Bereiter described what Lee had accomplished.
“I have had the opportunity to compare Kent’s police department with the others, and I have never found one to match Chief Lee’s,” Bereiter said, according to the Kent Independent newspaper in 1966.
Lee remained in Kent after he retired. He was a City Council member from 1968-72 and worked for Mannesmann Tally, a Kent manufacturer of computer printers.
Cooke met Lee in 1981 when she was hired as the Kent Chamber of Commerce executive director.
“Bob, as we called him, was the commissioned membership salesperson for the Kent Chamber of Commerce,” Cooke said. “The Kent Chamber of Commerce Robert E. Lee Membership Development Award is given each year in his honor.”
Lee served as the Kent School District hearing officer, and founded the Kent Juvenile Court Committee, Cooke said. His vast community service garnered him an award from the Kent Rotary Club.
Schmitz said she had talked to her father about sharing a name with the Confederate general. She said Gen. Robert E. Lee maintained a lot of respect in the South.
Schmitz, who worked five years as a Port of Seattle planner and 20 years as a King County administrator, wished the city of Kent had put “chief” in front of her dad’s name on the building to distinguish him from the general. She also likes the idea of a plaque on the side of the building to inform people about her dad. She is scheduled to give a presentation about her father at the Sept. 19 City Council meeting.
Cooke told the council that when someone asks what’s in a name, sometimes it’s a misperception because of a name shared by others.
“I just wanted to give light on the fact that we have a Robert E. Lee that we continue to celebrate,” Cooke said.