UNLV lost an advocate and one of its most generous philanthropists with the passing of Theodore “Ted” Lee Aug. 17. He was 88. Lee was a visionary business leader, a devoted family man, and the namesake donor behind the Lee Business School.
Together with his late wife, Doris, who died in 2018, Lee founded the Eureka Casino properties in Las Vegas and Mesquite. The couple also founded the Urban Land Companies, a family business that has developed a number of industrial, retail, and multi-family projects in Las Vegas and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Ted Lee was a true pillar of this community and an inspiration to the many people who were positively impacted by his generosity, dedication, and Rebel pride,” President Keith E. Whitfield said. “UNLV is incredibly fortunate to carry on his legacy through the Lee Business School, its faculty, students, and programs, for many generations to come. His decades of championing UNLV have been nothing short of transformative, and he will be missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”
The influence of education
Lee grew up in Stockton, California, where he played basketball on the high school varsity team and worked in his father's meat market every day after school. In 1950, he was accepted to Harvard University. Like many young people away from home for the first time, Lee struggled to adjust to college life. In 2012 Lee told UNLV that at first, he didn't know how to study or even take notes.
“At the end of my sophomore year, I suddenly realized that I was lucky to have been able to stay in school,” Lee said. “I decided that my last two years of college would be different, particularly if I wanted to have any chance to attend graduate school."
While the experience at Harvard was a struggle, Ted never lost his self-confidence and used the experience to change his life.
Like many of his generation, Lee served in the Army for two years, and then went to graduate school. He earned a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. But while practicing as an attorney, he recognized a need for more education. He wanted to improve his understanding of the world of business. Lee returned to Berkeley for his MBA, specializing in real estate and planning, and began his real estate career as a community organizer focused on urban renewal.
His vision for how he could best influence change and help others was already taking shape.
A family legacy of philanthropy
Ted and Doris were both tremendously influenced by their fathers, who shared a similar story. Both fathers immigrated to America as teenagers, not speaking English, and without money, jobs, or relatives. Both men started life without formal education. They worked hard, saved their money, and had reputations for honesty and integrity. Treating people fairly, being entrepreneurial, and having high expectations for yourself and others were important to both families.
Lee’s father, Bo, started his life in America in San Francisco's Chinatown, working two jobs. He moved to Sacramento, where he learned to be a butcher. Eventually, the Lees ended up in Stockton.
As the town's first butcher of Chinese ancestry, he opened three small grocery stores and meat markets. When he could no longer compete in the new business environment that existed following the end of World War II, three small real estate investments enabled him to retire at 48.
Bo advised his son at an early age that whatever you do, do it well and look for ways to do it better.It occurred to Lee that if he could do as well in real estate as his father, he should consider the possibility of real estate as a career.
Doris’ father, Joe Shoong, was also influential on Lee’s life and the family’s legacy. Joe immigrated to America at 18. He began working in a store in Vallejo, California. After a few years, he moved the business to San Francisco, changing its name to the Dollar Store. In 1928, he launched the National Dollar Stores, expanding them eventually to 35 stores throughout Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, and Hawaii.
Said Doris in 2012: "[My father] tried to provide his employees with a good living and security. He wanted their families to go to college. If they couldn't afford it, my dad would help. He ended up putting some of the children of his managers through college. They were part of his extended family."
The Lee family influence on Las Vegas and UNLV
Ted and Doris met through a real estate investment and married in 1969. Two years later, seeing the city’s potential, they began investing in Las Vegas. Together, the couple developed a life partnership in family and in business that would last almost 50 years.
The couple would become a fixture of the Las Vegas community in 1988 when they took over Friendly Fergie’s, a small casino on Sahara Avenue, turning it into the Eureka Casino. Lee enjoyed the casino business. He would greet customers at the bar by name and make all the myriad decisions necessary in a small casino, from creating menus for the coffee shop to scheduling the staff. In 1997, the Lees opened a larger property in Mesquite.
Over the years, as the family’s success grew, so did their giving to UNLV.
In 2001, the family established the first endowed professorship in law at UNLV's Boyd School of Law.
In the fall of 2011, UNLV’s business college was formally renamed the Lee School of Business thanks to the Lee’s $15 million gift. The gift not only shaped the future of the school but also improved its national reputation, expanded opportunities for current students, and promoted community and alumni support.
"Ted's vision of the Lee Business School serving as a world-class institution is his legacy that will live on through our students and faculty," said Gerry Sanders, dean of Lee Business School. "He will be missed by many, and never forgotten."
During that school's dedication ceremony, Ted's son, Greg Lee, shared how much his mother and father had influenced him.
"It's not every day that a son gets an opportunity to tell his parents how proud he is of them," Greg said.
His parents taught him perseverance and continuous improvement. If he struggled on his homework, his father would tell him that it was less important how his first effort turned out. His final effort is what counted.
"Our parents had high expectations for us, causing us to have high expectations for ourselves,” Greg said. “When my father would ask if this was the best that I could do, it only made me try harder to improve.”
Passing the baton to future generations
Ted and Doris influenced their sons as philanthropists, as well.
Today, Greg serves as a trustee and past chairman of the UNLV Foundation Board of Trustees. In 2020, Greg and his brother, Ernest, through the Ted and Doris Lee Family Foundation, created the Lee School Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a joint collaboration with the Lee Business School. The Lee Prize awarded an investment of $1 million to entrepreneurs working on the urgent problems that faced the hospitality, entertainment, and travel industries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanks in no small part to the generosity of the Lee family, and the vision of Ted Lee, today the Lee Business School is one of the largest schools at UNLV with approximately 3,500 undergraduate students, 500 graduate students, and more than 100 faculty and staff. The school offers the only accredited business program in Southern Nevada.
“If there’s one thing I know about the Lee family philanthropy, and Ted’s legacy, it is the great pride and joy he received from giving students opportunities,” said UNLV Foundation President Rickey N. McCurry, who also serves as vice president of the Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement. “Ted’s own life was transformed by education and he never lost sight of what his success could mean to others. He leaves a lasting impact on UNLV, and in the hearts and minds of his friends and family.”
An avid sports fan, a benefactor to the arts, and a dedicated son, father and grandfather, Lee will be remembered by many for his vision, tenacity, integrity, and philanthropy.
He is survived by sons Gregory and Ernest, daughters-in-law Dana and Tatiana, and grandchildren Graham, Katie, Luke, Harrison, Dylan and Bodie.