Arizona icon, Jerome’s Katie Lee, dies at age 98

JEROME – Widely recognized as “one of the Southwest’s most outspoken and beloved environmental activists and authors” Arizona icon Katie Lee has died at the age of 98 at her home in Jerome.

Lee passed away peacefully in her sleep Nov. 1, explained close friend Kathleen Williamson.

There will be a “life celebration” for the famous Jerome resident, Williamson said, but no specific plans at this time.

The news quickly spread through the small community Wednesday.

Richard Martin, who owns Jerome Gulch Radio, was a long-time friend of Lee’s and said he talked to her two days ago.

“She sounded great,” Martin said. “We had a great relationship. I was a kid from the West. She was kid from the West.”

Martin said he met Lee when he was renovating her Jerome house and she asked him to scan some of her Grand Canyon slides that she took on the Colorado River before the Glen Canyon Dam was built between 1956 and 1966. Martin said these included old photos of the canyon, wooden boats and such.

Martin said Lee refused to raft in the Grand Canyon after the dam was built. She called it a “sewer, a septic tank,” Martin said.

“Katie was very a skillful writer,” Martin said. “She really captured the feeling of the West.”

Tommy Anderson, owner of Tommy Rocks in Jerome, said he just saw Lee at the Jerome Humane Society fundraiser a few weeks ago and she looked great.

“She was full of giggles and full of laughs,” Anderson recalled.

Lee was also full of energy last May when she wrote the play: “Maude, Billy and Mr. B.” at Mingus Union High School and came out on the stage at end of the play to join in a waltz.

In an impromptu move, Lee started kicking her feet and legs up in the air toward the audience, Anderson said while imitating the move. Everyone else had to join in, he added.

Stage and screen actress

According to Arizona’s Real Katie Lee Web Site, Lee, who was born in Tucson, “began her professional career in 1948 as a stage and screen actress. She performed bit parts in motion pictures in Hollywood; had running parts on major NBC radio shows, including The Great Gildersleeve and The Railroad Hour with Gordon McRae; was an actress and folk music director on The Telephone Hour with Helen Parrish in the early 50s.

“Katie Lee is venerated as the most flamboyant of knights among a growing legion of pro-wilderness activists,” her web site bio states. “Katie has taken up the torch that conservationists Edward Abbey and David Brower left burning after they died – to sing, write and lecture about the importance of preserving and restoring wilderness refuges; the histories of ancient races embedded in its sinuous sandstone canyons; and the lonesome characters the West still breeds. Today, her unwavering commitment to her principles and feisty eloquence are primarily directed at draining Powell Reservoir and freeing the Colorado River through Glen Canyon

“Her career odyssey began in Hollywood and ended in Jerome, AZ where she now lives. She has published five books, including a trilogy about Glen Canyon, recorded 14 CDs, made two DVDs, and has become much sought-after for appearances in TV shows and documentary films about the Southwest.”

Lee came to Jerome in 1971

In an Oct. 20, 2014 feature story in The Verde Independent by Jerome historian Diane Sward Rapaport – author of Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City – Rapaport wrote that Lee had lived in Jerome since 1971 and is best known as “one of the Southwest’s most outspoken and beloved environmental activists and authors.”

“Ever since Glen Canyon was buried by Reservoir Powell,” wrote Rapaport, “Katie Lee has sung, stomped, photographed, written about, fought to let the Colorado River run free. She has inspired many to reconsider the issue of dams, particularly the ‘deadbeat’ dams that have become obsolete, and to consider the considerable environmental damage they have spawned. ‘Dam Dams’ reads the license plate of her Prius.”

2014 ‘Triple Career Milestones’

Rapaport noted that 2014 was a year of “Triple Career Milestones” for Lee. “First she is one of the emotional stars of two films: “DamNation” and “Wrenched.” Her latest book, The Ghosts of Dandy Crossing,” was published in May by Ken Sanders’ Dream Garden Press. Hance Editions in Flagstaff has just released a special edition of a dozen black and white classic portraits taken by photographer Martin D. Koehler of a nude Katie at 37 years old in the canyons of Glen Canyon that she so loved. No wonder Katie Lee is in a triple tizzy.”

Her book, “Ghosts of Dandy Crossing” is a triple love story,” Rapaport continued. “The characters that lived around Dandy Crossing, now Hite Marina, before the river rose to drown it; the love of the beauty of Glen Canyon that would soon be drowned; and Katie’s love affair with a a cowboy/miner. Katie is one of the few writers I know whose words can weave us into the magic spell that the canyons of the southwest have-and this book does it very well. The book is one of the few historical documents about the life lived in Hite Canyon before the dam.”

The ultimate free spirit

A free spirit who was known to have ridden her bicycle around Jerome in the nude, “Anyone who has ever hiked or boated with Katie in the wilderness knows she will shed her clothes as quickly as she possibly can, and not put them on again until she gets close to her car,” Rapaport reported. “In her words, [I have been] ‘hiking freely and in tune with nature for at least half of those years. When I met Glen Canyon it was love at first sight- a place far from the inbred taboos of our society- closer to a dreamland than to reality. I have never posed as a model and am not doing so here … only doing what I always did in Glen Canyon- climbing, dancing, walking, touching, talking to the stone, swimming in the river, lying in the shallows, sliding down the falls, crawling through ruins, inching up crevasses, hanging from tree limbs, covering myself with mud, playing, singing, living with the canyon. I can always tell when a model is photographed in a place she’s never seen or experienced before; it’s in body language that can’t be hidden.’”

Rapaport’s story in the Verde Independent continued that in 2014, “Two films show Katie being interviewed and singing about the loss of Glen Canyon — “Wrenched” and “DamNation.” The film “DamNation” is a documentary about America’s lost and endangered rivers and the dams that block them. Producers Travis Rummel and Matt Stoecker dub Katie Lee “The Grand Dame of Dam Busting.”

Rapaport continued: “Producer ML Lincoln’s film “Wrenched” is a gut-wrenching documentary about the community of activists that were inspired by the work of Edward Abbey, who wrote so eloquently about the lonesome and beautiful places of the Southwest. www.wrenched-themovie.com. Abbey fought with his pen to help prevent wilderness desecration from industries that care only for the money they produce. Today, profits from pollution are virtually synonymous with big business. Katie Lee sings and talks her way right into your heart in that film. “Wrenched” was shown in Flagstaff last week and the film received a standing ovation.”

Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame

Williamson said Lee was one of the first independent-label musicians, walking away from a major music label. In 2011, The Verde Independent reported that Lee was inducted into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame during an Oct. 1 ceremony at the Elks Theater in Prescott

Lee joined a long list of Hall of Fame inductees, including Stevie Nicks, Dick Van Dyke, Tanya Tucker, The Kingston Trio and Steven Spielberg. Linda Ronstadt, another inductee, once told Katie, “I listened to your records since I was a kid.”

“Katie, through music and writing, has been an outspoken activist for the environment,” said Noel Fray, Jerome resident and member of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. “I’ve known her for years. She has been a strong entertainer.”

At the time, the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott reported that “Katie Lee is an Arizona icon who began her career as a stage and screen actress before becoming a fixture in coffee houses and cabarets throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico as a folksinger. She has emerged as one of the Southwest’s most outspoken environmental activists, using her music and feisty eloquence to both entertain and educate.”

In addition to her stage- and screen-actress career in such productions as “The Great Gildersleeve” and “The Railroad Hour” with Gordon McRae, Lee was an also an actress and folk music director on the “The Telephone Hour” with Helen Parrish before leaving Hollywood to pursue her folk singing career.

“In the beginning, I was working in coffee houses,” she told The Verde Independent in 2011. “I was traveling by myself all over the United States in my T-Bird (1955). Just me and my guitar.”

Over the years, Lee built up an impressive list of credits. She has written books, songs and poems. Many of her photographs, songs and poems have been published in periodicals and anthologies such as Arizona Highways, Mountain Gazette, American Whitewater Journal and many others.

In addition to recording numerous albums, Lee has been interviewed on National Public Radio, and she has been featured in television and independent film specials. She also has won a number of awards, including the Cine Golden Eagle.

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