Norman Joseph Lee Jr., a Harford County businessman who organized reunions of a secret World War II Navy intelligence unit, died of a stroke Thursday at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace. The Perryman resident was 80.
Born in Baltimore and raised at his family's Perryman home, he was a 1940 graduate of Charlotte Hall Military Academy in Southern Maryland. Mr. Lee earned his bachelor's degree at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where he pitched and played first base on the baseball team. Later, he was inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame.
Family members said Mr. Lee completed college in three years, joined the Navy and entered its Notre Dame Midshipmen's School at South Bend, Ind.
Because of his athletic ability - he was also an accomplished swimmer who trained in the Bush River - he volunteered for a new secret unit, Scouts and Raiders, which had more than 1,000 members and was a forerunner of the Navy SEALs.
He studied survival and intelligence-gathering techniques at naval bases at Little Creek, Va., and Fort Pierce, Fla., in anticipation of an invasion of Japan. He was sent to China after the Japanese surrender. While in training, he was interviewed by James Roosevelt, whose father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wanted information on the program.
After returning from Asia, Mr. Lee played baseball in the Susquehanna League for the Aberdeen Canners. His teammates included three Ripkens - Cal Ripken Sr., the late Orioles manager, and his brothers William K. and Oliver.
Instead of embarking on a baseball career, Mr. Lee took over a family business, Lee Buick in Perryman, a dealership founded by his grandfather in 1910. He sold it in 1968.
A son, Daniel W. Lee of Bel Air, said his father gave him some sage advice: "If you're the owner's son, you have to work harder, longer, better and do it right the first time." He said his father also stressed honesty and told him, "Show your elders proper respect. You never talk up to anyone. You never talk down to anyone."
Mr. Lee also was an owner of HarCo Distributing of Aberdeen, which distributed National Beer and soft drinks, and Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. of Havre de Grace. For many years, he also operated National Car Rental outlets in Harford County.
About 15 years ago, Mr. Lee received a call from a former Navy Scout and Raider who had seen Perryman mentioned in an Amtrak advertisement, remembered that Mr. Lee had lived there and called him. That prompted Mr. Lee to try to find his surviving World War II colleagues.
"He was a detective. He called the colleges and alumni departments and worked hard until he rounded up just about everyone. He found them one by one," said his wife of 55 years, the former Eleanor Grier.
Mr. Lee and his fellow Scouts and Raiders then held annual reunions.
"He got quite a few people together," said James E. Barnes, a former Navy Scout and Raider from St. Petersburg, Fla. "And yet, there are still a lot of people who don't know about us."
Mr. Lee was a founding board member of Harford Bank and a charter board member of Atlantic Federal Savings and Loan, now Susquehanna Bank. He was also a past president of the Aberdeen Rotary Club and a former member of the Harford Memorial Hospital board. He was a former member of Harford County's Democratic Central Committee.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today at St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Aberdeen.
In addition to his wife and son, survivors include two other sons, N. Joseph Lee III of Bel Air and Andrew G. Lee of Churchville; a daughter, Elizabeth Hacke of Bel Air; three sisters, Eleanore L. Kunkle and Sallie L. VanRensselaer, both of Bel Air, and Mollie L. Maslin of Perryman; and eight grandchildren. A daughter, Kristin G. Lee, died in 1984.