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Mathilde B. "Mimi" Lee, former acting first lady of Maryland, dies at 91

Mathilde B. "Mimi" Lee, who as the wife of Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III eschewed the political pomp and circumstance of Annapolis for the fields and woods where she could hike, canoe and swim, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at Laurel Regional Hospital.

The Silver Spring resident was 91.

Mathilde Boal was named for her paternal grandmother, who was related to Christopher Columbus.

Her father, Pierre de Lagarde Boal, was an American diplomat who had served as ambassador to Nicaragua and Bolivia. Her French mother, Jeanne de Menthon, was a descendant of Bernard de Menthon, the 11th-century saint for whom the Alpine rescue dogs are named.

A striking woman who always wore her hair pulled back into a carefully combed bun, Mrs. Lee told a Washington Post reporter in 1977 that every time the word "aristocracy" was used in stories to describe her background, it made her want to "throw up."

She was a graduate of Elmwood School, an exclusive private girls school in Ottawa, Canada, where her father was on a diplomatic assignment. While at Elmwood, Mrs. Lee was given her first canoe, which became a lasting and lifelong pursuit.

By the time she entered Bryn Mawr College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1943, Mrs. Lee had lived in 10 countries and was fluent not only in English but French and Spanish.

When she was in her 80s, she learned German to keep her mind sharp, said a son, Blair Lee IV of Silver Spring, CEO of Lee Development Corp. and a columnist for The Gazette.

After Bryn Mawr, she worked in South America as a chemist for the Rockefeller Foundation before being engaged and married in 1944 to Francis Preston Blair Lee III, a 1938 graduate of Princeton and a World War II naval officer.

The Lees and the Boals had been close family friends for years. Mr. Lee was a direct descendant of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Francis Preston Blair Sr., a confidant of Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

While her husband honed his political career, she was content staying at their Silver Spring farm raising their eight children.

"She still answers her own phone, vacuums her house, cooks for her guests," reported The Washington Post in the 1977 article, which described her style of dress as being blue jeans, denim work shirts and red sneakers.

"She disdains luncheons and fashion shows except for her favorite causes — the Red Cross, water safety and Holy Cross Hospital among others. And while some other women from ordinary backgrounds would revel in the new status, Mimi Lee admits that sometimes it's inconvenient," reported the newspaper.

In 1970, Mr. Lee was picked by Gov. Marvin Mandel to serve as the state's first lieutenant governor.

When Governor Mandel came under indictment and temporarily resigned in 1977, Mr. Lee took his place. And when Governor Mandel was convicted and sentenced, Mr. Lee became acting governor, a position he held until 1979, after losing the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Mrs. Lee, who reluctantly stepped into her role as acting first lady, chose to remain the fiercely independent person she had been throughout her life.

When it came time for the couple to move into the governor's mansion, Mr. Lee told The Evening Sun, "Where I go, she goes. At least that's what I keep telling myself anyway."

"She would rather be canoeing on the Potomac, backpacking along the Appalachian Trail or teaching children to swim than preparing for a formal party," reported The Baltimore Sun at the time.

"For unlike some of her predecessors [in Government House], Mimi Lee has no interest in the presumed glories of being a politician's wife. She has lived among the powerful since childhood and is hard to impress," observed the newspaper.

Mrs. Lee's Chevrolet Impala station wagon, with canoes lashed to the roof or sitting in a trailer that she towed, was a familiar sight in Annapolis in those years.

"Once a week, she'd drive over from Silver Spring and go around State Circle a few times, which made people think she lived here," her son said. "She never spent a night" in the governor's mansion.

"She pretty much stayed at home because she had her own life and let Blair have his," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes. "She was a physical fitness addict and enjoyed walking, swimming and canoeing."

Frank A. DeFilippo, who was press secretary to Governor Mandel and is now a political columnist and analyst, recalled observing Mrs. Lee during one of her brief visits to Annapolis.

"First off, she was not a political person at all, and to watch her in action was a real joy. With her, there was never any pomp or pretense," said Mr. DeFilippo.

"I normally eschew the overused word 'unique,' but Mimi truly was. I've covered first ladies going back to Avalynne Tawes, and Mimi was the only one of the bunch who truly loathed life in the mansion, which, when forced to be there, she roamed in Sunny's Surplus fatigues with cargo pockets," Mr. DeFilippo said with a laugh.

Every year the Lees gave what they called a "Beer Bash" for Maryland Democrats at their farm.

"She'd be hiding behind the grill cooking hot dogs. That's what she liked to do. She could have cared less about the political discussions," her son said.

"What she did do was give away kittens. She had lots of barn cats, and she'd give what she called her 'Democats' to the gathered politicians who accepted them thinking it would curry favor with my father," he said.

Her husband died in 1985.

Even as she grew older, Mrs. Lee did not abandon the quest for physical fitness that defined her life. She was a champion swimmer who set numerous state and national Senior Olympics records. In the U.S. Masters Swimming Nationals, Mrs. Lee placed first nationally in various events eight times and second 20 times.

At age 70, Mrs. Lee climbed the French Pyrenees with two 17-year-old grandchildren.

Mrs. Lee was a communicant of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, 12319 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday.

Also surviving are four other sons, John F. Lee of Brookeville, Philip L. Lee of Potomac, Joseph W. Lee of Old Fields, W.Va., and Christopher G. Lee of Boalsburg, Pa.; two daughters, Jenny Sataloff of Baltimore and Erica B. Lee of Corvallis, Mont.; a sister, Mary Elizabeth d'Harcourt of Paris; 19 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another son, Pierre B. Lee, died in 1973.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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