Lester Lee, 86, Chesapeake Bay waterman

February 07, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Lester Lee, the quintessential Chesapeake Bay waterman -- gentle, hard-working and religious -- died of kidney failure Tuesday at the home of a son in Dominion, Queen Anne's County. He was 86.

Mr. Lee lived his entire life in Dominion -- part of the village of Chester, not far from Crab Alley Creek on Maryland's Kent Island -- in a two-story white clapboard house with a white picket fence and neat yard.

Known as Captain Lester, the fourth-generation waterman spent years oystering and crabbing in Eastern Bay. He retired a little more than a decade ago.

His feuding with "chicken neckers," earned him a chapter in William Warner's 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Beautiful Swimmers."

"A friend of mine told me about him, and I went down to see him and crab by trotline, which has been the classic crabbing method for over a century before the introduction of pots," Mr. Warner of Washington said yesterday.

In his book in the chapter "Lester Lee and the Chicken Neckers," Mr. Warner wrote that Mr. Lee "had a remarkable physique for a man in his sixties.

"Like all who have practiced shaft tonging for oysters, his forearms were extremely thick and his chest and midsection were deep and round, tapering to slim hips. His hair was dark brown with a pronounced reddish tinge. Signs of aging, in fact, were confined to a moderately paunchy stomach and a wrinkled dark mahogany complexion that had a time-worn quality."

Mr. Warner described a day on Mr. Lee's boat and his disdain for "chicken neckers," a term Mr. Lee coined for weekend crabbers.

"Chicken neckers" sped by in their boats, tangling lines in their wake and crabbing not with cut, salted eel for bait, as trotliners do, but with chicken necks purchased at a grocery.

In the book, Mr. Warner noted Captain Lester's mood swings from ecstasy to blame as he harvested crabs, all the while remaining alert for the sight of a "chicken necker's" boat.

"If the pace quickened, Captain Lester exulted. 'Well, look 'a here; now they coming.' If it slacked off, he would of course blame it on the archenemy. 'Them chicken neckers, they's more of them now than either year,' he might exclaim. 'They see us dip a few crabs here so they'll be out this evening thinking it's the only place the crabs is at.' "

Reaping celebrity with the publication of "Beautiful Swimmers," Captain Lester claimed that the book had made him "notoriotous."

Suddenly, he found himself in demand as a speaker at such prestigious institutions as the Smithsonian Institution, Washington College and Georgetown University.

Initially, he was reluctant to accept the invitations, explaining to his sons, "I ain't got enough education to fool with those people and we talk different from them."

Robert Lee, his son and a 50-year waterman who lives in Dominion, said, "We used to say, 'Daddy, you don't want them durn chicken neckers down here, then you go off to them colleges and tell 'em how to crab.' "

"He actually learned to love them after he got used to them and was really openly friendly with them. He used to say, 'They's ornery chicken neckers and ornery professional crabbers both,' " Robert Lee said, with a deep laugh.

Lester Lee left school after the second grade and began crabbing on the bay at age 8, after the death of his mother. At 12, he was captain of his own workboat.

Until he retired, he went out on his boat the Mertz -- named for his wife Mary -- in the wee hours of the morning, every day except Sundays.

A devout Methodist, "I give the Lord the other day," he would say.

In 1978, he said in The Evening Sun, "As long as I'm here, I'm going to get out in my boat every day. Not many mornings in all my years have I missed seeing the sun come up, God's handiwork in the east."

"When he started out he said he used to get 25 cents for two bushels of crabs. Now we get a heck of a lot more, and he couldn't get used to our complaining that we couldn't make a living," Robert Lee said.

"His one piece of advice to us was, 'If you handle your money right, the Lord will provide a living.'

"People said he was the hardest working man in Kent Island and he did what he wanted to do all his life. The other blessing was that he wasn't sick long," the son said.

"He may not have had any education but he was a good man

and a religious man, and when he said a prayer, he could put a tear in your eye."

Mr. Lee was married for many years to the former Mary E. Schaw, who died in 1982.

He was a lifelong member of Kent Island United Methodist Church, Route 50, Kent Island, where services will be held at 11 a.m. today.

He is survived by four other sons, Theodore Lee and Donald Lee, both of Dominion, Ralph Lee of Chester and Wendall Lee of Easton; a brother, Robert E. Lee of Grasonville; a sister, Eva Stevens of Dominion; 17 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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