Mimi Lee, an outdoorswoman, volunteer and mother of eight who became a somewhat reluctant first lady of Maryland when her politician husband was elevated by circumstance to governor in the late 1970s, died Aug. 9 at Laurel Regional Hospital. She was 91 and had congestive heart failure.
The daughter of a U.S. ambassador, Mrs. Lee was a research chemist before marrying Blair Lee III in 1944. Her husband was a scion of a storied Maryland and Virginia political family whose forebears included a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
A Democrat, Blair Lee served in both houses of the Maryland legislature and was Maryland’s secretary of state before becoming lieutenant governor under Marvin Mandel in the 1970s.
In 1977, Blair Lee took over as acting governor as Mandel was facing racketeering charges; Mandel was convicted and sent to prison, but his sentence was overturned many years later on appeal. Meanwhile, Blair Lee ran for the governorship in 1978 but lost a Democratic primary battle to Harry Hughes, a former Maryland secretary of transportation.
When her husband became Maryland’s chief executive, Mrs. Lee could not ignore the circumstance but largely dismissed the pomp. She declared politics mostly “frivolous,” explaining that she preferred to focus her energies on “common-sense” activities.
She stayed at the family home in Silver Spring while her husband settled into the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. By all accounts, they remained devoted to each other, but she struck a decidedly independent path.
She said she cared little for the formal lunches and fashion-show appearances expected of governors’ wives. She said it reminded her too much of the dutiful, embassy-centered social life she knew as a child.
She said she would limit her role in Annapolis to only the most “necessary” meetings. “I don’t think I’m that vital to Blair’s political life,” she told The Washington Post in 1977. “He’s quite a capable person. After all, he’s the governor, not me.”
She continued pursuing a schedule centered on volunteer responsibilities for the American Red Cross, the March of Dimes and Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. She also conducted swimming lessons for the handicapped when not taking up new interests such as yoga.
Her preferred wardrobe was blue jeans, denim work shirts and sneakers. The Post noted that she carted around a bag lunch and canoe paddles from the back of an old station wagon.
Mathilde Boal was born in Washington on May 1, 1920. Her father, Pierre, was a career diplomat and served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia in the early 1940s. Her mother was French.
She was a 1943 graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she graduated cum laude with a degree in chemistry. She briefly worked in Colombia as a chemist for the Rockefeller Foundation before her marriage.
Blair Lee died in 1985, and their son Pierre B. Lee died in 1973. Survivors include seven children, Blair Lee IV of Silver Spring, Joseph W. Lee of Old Fields, W.Va, Christopher G. Lee of Boalsburg, Pa., Erica B. Lee of Corvallis, Mont., Philip L. Lee of Potomac, John F. Lee of Brookeville and Jenny Sataloff of Baltimore; a sister; 19 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
While raising her children, Mrs. Lee was a Girl Scout leader, skier, camper, canoeist and swim instructor. She learned carpentry when her children’s bedrooms needed remodeling, and she owned and operated her own chain saw and professional-grade limb chipper.
Later, she set state and national Senior Olympics records and hiked in the Pyrenees at 70.
When her husband was governor, Mrs. Lee made weekly trips to Annapolis and, once there, was known to inhabit the role of first lady with grace and charm.
She did express her dismay, however, at having to cancel a white-water canoe trip on the Shenandoah River to accommodate a visit to Maryland by Princess Anne of England. But, she told The Post, the day turned out to be “lovely” after all.
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