Lee, who died in 1979, previously was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame (1972) and the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame (1982). The St. Paul City Council renamed Oxford Playground after him that same year as well. He also was featured in the MSR’s month-long Black history series in February.
With his daughter and grandson present Sunday afternoon in St. Paul’s Crowne Plaza Hotel ballroom, Lee and nine others officially became members in the hall, whose membership now is 196. These men and women initially didn’t set out to be there, but their beliefs in such values as sportsmanship, self-discipline, cooperation and dedication to serve youth eventually got them there.
“It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful,” said Lee’s daughter Patricia Gooden. Her son Fred, who accepted the trophy for his grandfather, added softly, “It’s nice.”
Previous inductees James Robinson (1993) and Frank White (2005), recently retired Minneapolis Public Schools athletic director John Washington, and others proudly used the “overdue” adjective to describe Sunday’s festivities. “It’s past overdue,” said Robinson, who was mentored by Lee. “My thoughts are that he should’ve been one of the first inductees.”
“If you talk to others, he is a pioneer and an outstanding person,” said White. “He could have been inducted in the ‘80s after he passed away. For whatever reason, he slipped through the cracks. But he is truly someone who needed to be honored.”
Said Washington, who was honored Sunday with an MSHSL Merit Award, “I’m sure he’s proud and his family is proud to have him in there. I think it was long overdue.” He, along with Robinson and White, are members of the League’s Hall of Fame selection committee.
“We said this is a person who has done a lot for athletics, officiating, and just for people of color,” added Washington. “He should’ve been voted in a long time ago.”
Longtime St. Paul youth baseball coach Billy Peterson, who also knew Lee, completed the “overdue chorus” quartet. “Oh, yeah — he’s well overdue. A lot of kudos to Frank [White] for a lot of digging for background information, because there wasn’t a lot of information on Jimmy Lee.”
The information was out there on Lee, however, including the fact that he was Minnesota’s first Black high school sports official who umpired softball games beginning in the 1930s and quickly became one of the state’s most sought after and respected basketball, football and baseball officials. His skin color, not his ability, kept Lee from working a state basketball tournament game or Division I college football or basketball games, but he nonetheless opened that closed door to others such as Robinson to walk through.
MSHSL Associate Director Lisa Lissimore said she had no problems supporting his Hall of Fame candidacy. “I’m so very proud being a part of inducting a man on whose playground I learned to play games, and recognizing someone from the same community,” she said of Lee.
“What made him deserving is not that he was an African American, but rather that he was an outstanding official who just happens to be African American,” concluded White.
Award of Merit
John Washington was among three individuals Sunday who received this year’s MSHSL Award of Merit. “It’s a nice honor, and I wasn’t expecting it,” said Washington. “It came from all the work I did in Minneapolis Public Schools, but that’s where all the credit should go.”
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