Rosemary Lee, an outspoken downtown resident and City Hall activist, passed away Monday at the age of 78, leaving a vacant gallery seat in the City Council chambers.
Lee moved to Madison more than 50 years ago and lived downtown for most of that time. She worked in the insurance industry and at University of Wisconsin-Madison, volunteering extensively throughout her life and serving on three city committees.
After her retirement, she became a regular fixture at City Hall, sitting in her preferred seat on the left side of the City Council chambers every other Tuesday evening.
“It’s fair to say Rosemary has been attending City Council meetings longer than some of my colleagues have,” said downtown Ald. Mike Verveer.
Verveer first met Lee when she contacted the mayor’s office in spring of 1995, shortly after Verveer had been elected. She was concerned about a noise issue at the restaurant next door to her longtime downtown home, so the mayor’s office gave her Verveer’s number.
They became friends immediately, which soon led to Lee’s devotion to city government.
“She always blamed me for her catching the City Hall bug,” Verveer said.
Lee started coming to city meetings consistently, both to ones Verveer was at and ones that simply caught her interest. There were many items for which she would be the only speaker or one of few. Some years, Vereer said, she was the only person speaking on the city budget. Her constant attendance earned her the title of “21st alder,” a designation that was reiterated in a resolution this year declaring her Nov. 13 birthday “Rosemary Lee Day.”
“She enjoyed watching me in action, but beyond that I think she really took tremendous pride in civic engagement and bemoaned the lack of interest on the part of the public,” Verveer said.
Starting in 2003, Lee consistently served on city committees. She sat on the Vending Oversight Committee from 2003 to 2012, the Downtown Coordinating Committee from 2006 to 2013 and the Committee on Aging from 2013 until Monday. She volunteered at a long list of Madison organizations, including neighborhood groups, St. Mary’s Hospital, Madison Literacy Council, Madison Repertory Theatre, Wisconsin Historical Society and Madison Children’s Museum.
Verveer and Lee became close friends over the years, often going out to dinner after City Council meetings and sometimes having phone conversations that would last two or three hours.
That didn’t mean they always agreed, though. There were times they took opposite stances on major issues or development, like the controversial Edgewater Hotel. Verveer said Lee decided early on that developer Bob Dunn’s vision for the hotel was “spot-on,” whereas he did not think the design was appropriate for the historic district.
Verveer said there have been occasions over the years where Lee’s strong advocacy for a development proposal has made a difference because of her constant presence and devotion.
“She did take it seriously. She was always very very proud of the fact that she did her homework,” Verveer said.
After contentious votes, Verveer said, she might get angry with him for a day or two, then after a couple days they would be friends again.
Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late July and passed away Monday. Verveer said there will be a memorial service in January, but the specifics have yet to be arranged.
“It will be a big change in my life, as a lot of my other friends have observed, without her there,” Verveer said. “She was really a constant presence in my life the past two decades.”