Walt Whitman of Santa Cruz: Paul Lee’s legacy in Santa Cruz is immense, on campus and in town


One day in 1965, a young Harvard-educated philosophy professor looking for a job named Paul Lee saw an article in the New York Times announcing that another Harvard man had just accepted a position on the new campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz. . Unbeknownst to anyone, including Lee himself, this moment was a watershed moment not only in the life of the ambitious young philosopher, but in the cultural history of Santa Cruz itself.

Lee happened to know the man mentioned in the Times article, botanist Kenneth Thimann, who was hired as the first provost of Crown College at UCSC. The two men went to tea and Lee convinced himself to get a job.

More than half a century later, on October 20, 2022, Paul Lee died at the age of 91 in Santa Cruz. Turns out Lee didn’t last that long on the faculty at UCSC. But in the history of the city itself, he leaves behind an astonishing legacy as a founding figure of many organizations, an activist in a number of progressive movements, a mentor and father figure to some, an inspiration and moral guide to many. others, an influence and friend to even more. A budding former Lutheran minister who later became a central figure in the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, Lee was an intellectual powerhouse deeply rooted in philosophy dating back to the ancient Greeks. He was, say those close to him, a teacher, in the broadest sense of the word, desirous not only to impart the wisdom of the ages, but to inspire and cultivate innate curiosity and humanity in others, and to establish vital links. between people.

Lee has founded, co-founded, or otherwise inspired the creation of a wide array of businesses that, taken together, form much of the backbone of Santa Cruz’s unique socio-political profile. Lee and his longtime friend, UCSC’s first provost, Page Smith, founded the William James Association, the influential public service organization that, among other things, has been bringing creative arts to prisons for more than four decades. . He and another longtime friend, Herb Schmidt, founded the Whole Earth Restaurant on the UCSC campus in 1970, inspired by Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog.” He also brought to Santa Cruz horticulturalist Alan Chadwick who formed the UCSC Farm and Garden and was a critical influence in the growth of the organic food movement in Santa Cruz.

Paul Lee (right) with famous poet Allen Ginsberg at UCSC, 1966.

In the late 1970s, Lee led a ballot initiative to stop development in the Pogonip area and preserve it as a greenbelt. He founded the Homeless Garden Project and for over 40 years was a tireless advocate for homeless people and a strong supporter of the Foods Not Bombs program.

Yet his signature legacy may be Penny University, the improbably idealistic venture that sprouted in the wake of Lee’s departure from UCSC. It was a weekly salon that started in the mid-70s at Caffe Pergolesi and eventually moved to Calvary Episcopal Church, offering a sort of college-level seminar with Lee, Page Smith, and the legendary art teacher of UCSC Mary Holmes covering a wide variety of topics. And it was free for everyone who walked through the door. “Penny U” was still going strong until the pandemic came to a halt in 2020, with Lee still being the man the whole business revolved around.

If you’ve ever experienced a hug from Paul Lee, you’ll remember it. Eric Thiermann, who took a philosophy class with Lee at the start of UCSC, said, “His arms were always open. When he hugged you, he always said, ‘Let go first.’ »

Lee’s house on Spring Street was always open for friends and acquaintances, to talk philosophy, politics, world affairs or whatever else over a Friday afternoon martini. Whether it was joy, anger or annoyance, Lee rarely held back from speaking out and encouraged others to do so as well. He had little use for social customs, preferring a kind of emotional authenticity born of the counterculture of the 1960s.

Paul Lee with his daughter Jessica on what would become the Allen Chadwick Garden at UCSC.

Paul Lee with his daughter Jessica on what would become the Allen Chadwick Garden at UCSC.

To many, he was Santa Cruz’s own Walt Whitman, an exuberant and intellectually restless spirit who was never afraid to display his messy and troublesome humanity. “Do you know that ‘Song of Myself’ poem?” said Lee’s friend and fellow philosopher Aleksandra Wolska. “’I celebrate myself and sing myself, And what I presume you will assume, For every atom that belongs to me as property belongs to you.‘ It was Paul Lee. He spoke for himself, but at the same time he was inclusive and he was ecumenical, and when he said everyone was welcome, he meant it.

“Paul was a Midwestern guy who just went through life,” said Santa Cruz architect and longtime friend Mark Primack of Lee who grew up in Milwaukee and moved back to Wisconsin every summer. “He was idealistic and fearless. He acted on a whim like no one else I’ve ever known, but he was always smart enough to survive it. I mean, most people hit the wall hard. But Paul was resilient and he was observant enough to be able to get through all kinds of situations. He was so bold.

Primack considered Lee a mentor and credits Lee with convincing him to move to Santa Cruz in the mid-1970s. “Paul was always recruiting young people to do things,” he said. “Paul had the ideas and he grabbed young people who didn’t have a lot of experience but had a lot of idealism and put them on those paths.”

Lee’s path for Primack involved creating a referendum to preserve the Pogonip as a permanent green belt adjoining the city. “A lot of times people will say, ‘Oh, you and Paul Lee did that.’ And I’ll be like, ‘No. It was Paul Lee who did it. I was nobody. It was because Paul had the confidence and the presence in the community that we could do something like that, and I could contribute to it.

Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner reads a proclamation honoring Paul Lee (with cap) on Sept. 20, Lee's 91st birthday.

Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner reads a proclamation honoring Paul Lee (with cap) on Sept. 20, Lee’s 91st birthday.

(Eric Thiermann)

“Paul was a great spark plug for innovation,” said longtime Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton. “He always has great ideas there.” Patton’s tenure ended before Lee turned to his most persistent activism on behalf of the homeless. Lee’s assertive activism in this area led him to become entangled with Patton’s successor, Mardi Wormhoudt. Patton’s relationship with Lee was more rooted at Penny University. And just a few years ago, Lee called the former supervisor and attorney and recruited him to work at the state level on drafting a climate change legislative proposal.

Herb Schmidt, 92, was the former Lutheran pastor at UCSC and Lee’s first friend in Santa Cruz, dating back to 1966. The two men remained close friends until Lee’s death. “His main concern was the homeless,” Schmidt said, “and he pursued that to the very end.”

All of this activism came at the expense of what could have been a great college career. “He was a first-class scholar,” said longtime friend and former UCSC professor Ralph Abraham. “And he was an extraordinarily skilled speaker.” Abraham and Lee first met at a campus protest against the Vietnam War, Lee dressed in a scholar’s robe, Abraham in an American flag shirt, à la Abbie Hoffman. A photograph of the two professors made the front page of many newspapers and while Abraham was incumbent and protected, Lee was not. When the university subsequently denied Lee tenure, Page Smith—along with UCSC’s most prominent founding figure, Dean McHenry—resigned from the faculty in protest.

“He was a rebel,” said former student and friend Eric Thiermann of Lee. “I mean, he always had a wonderful cause. He wasn’t a rebel just to be antagonistic. He was a magnet for people who had alternative ideas and who were at the forefront of many of the movements that were circulating at the time.

In his final days — actually on his 91st birthday in September — Lee was celebrated in a ceremony at his home in which Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner read him a proclamation declaring “Paul Lee Day “.

Paul Lee was a Whitman-esque figure to many in Santa Cruz. From the inspiration to start a garden at UCSC to bringing in famed horticulturist Alan Chadwick to manage it, Lee said, “I’ve had a few clairvoyant experiences in my life, but this was one of the best.”

“Paul loved being the center of attention,” Thiermann said. “He had so many TS Eliot poems to share.”

Before coming to Santa Cruz, Lee had served as editor of the Psychedelic Review, along with fellow Harvard misfits Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Although he moved away from using psychedelics, Lee remained a hippie at heart. Thiermann recalls Lee bringing Beat icon Allen Ginsberg to college. “All these alternative people are showing up,” he said. “The Hell’s Angels have arrived. And there was Paul in the middle of it all. And he was giving hugs and kisses to everyone.

A memorial celebration of Paul Lee’s life will be held at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Soquel on December 18, from 2 to 4 p.m.

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