Lee Childress, sitting, poses with Cheryl Kinsman, left, and Nicholas Kinsman at the MACY Awards. (June 28, 2012)

Lee Childress is revered for founding the MACY Awards to honor high school musical performers, but around Laguna, she's known as a performer.

Childress lived in Laguna for years with her late husband, John, and daughter, Cathe. The family performed onstage and backstage at the Laguna Playhouse and in the Pageant of the Masters. Although now a resident of Laguna Woods, Childress still owns property in town.

Her connection to Laguna began long before she moved here. She used to visit the Brown family at their El Morro campsite when former Mayor Cheryl Kinsman was growing up. Kinsman's mother, Virginia Brown, wife of longtime Riverside Mayor Ab Brown, met the beautiful blond Lana Turner look-alike while their husbands were fighting in World War II.

"We called her Auntie Lee and we thought she was our aunt until we were teenagers," said Becky Brown, Kinsman's sister.

They were honored guests at the annual MACY Awards, held in May at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for the first time.

The show celebrated the talent that participants displayed in high school musical theater, onstage and offstage.

No way was Childress going to miss that, despite ailing health that had hospitalized her with a very poor prognosis.

"I was an inch from dying, but if I was going to die it was going to be at the MACYs, not in the hospital," Childress said during a recent luncheon at her home.

Childress credits her recovery to her daughter, her Mission Hospital doctors and her own spirit, as unquenchable as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," to which a sequel could be based on Childress' life, according to the program notes for the 2012 El Rancho High School production.

Laguna Beach attorney Larry Nokes called Childress a force of nature.

"With just a few words or a hug, Lee has the innate ability to inspire others to excel beyond their expectations," Kinsman said.

MACY Awards board member Sande St. John added: "She is awesome."

"God put me here for a reason," Childress commented.

The reason, she said, is the MACYs.

Lee and John Childress founded the MACY Awards in 1969 in Los Angeles.

"We had just come back that day from London when a student that Johnny, who was principal of Fairfax High School, had expelled came up to us and thanked my husband," said Childress. "He said it had turned his life around and he was now performing in the musical 'Flower Drum Song' at another school and invited us to attend.

"We said no. We were tired, but he pleaded with us and we accepted. We were blown away."

The Childresses couldn't believe the quality of the performance or that it was virtually a secret.

Back then, high school athletes were honored and awarded, but there was no such recognition or competition for talented performing arts students. They were determined to rectify that.

"We went to Mayor Sam Yorty, who said he couldn't give us any money, but he would help as much as he could," Childress said.