Leon "Lee" Garfield, whose nickname was synonymous in Baltimore with Oreeeo, Halvah, Reese's, Sir Fig Newton and Tequila Sunrise ice cream, died Tuesday of a heart attack at his Owings Mills residence. He was 67.
Mr. Garfield worked for many years in the insurance industry, but ice cream was the great love of his life.
He founded Lee's Ice Cream. in 1979, fulfilling a lifelong dream with the opening of his first store on York Road in Towson.
Exotic flavors and a 17 percent butterfat content were keys to Lee's success.
The first store offered 25 flavors. The business has grown to 10 stores and 200 flavors, with some of its products exported as far away as Saudi Arabia.
"The thought of ice cream brought up many happy memories for him," said Scott Garfield, a son who lives in Mount Washington and works in the family business.
"He researched ice cream and spent two years studying with a dairy scientist at the University of Maryland," the son said.
Mr. Garfield and his wife of 40 years, the former Mary Levin, who was described by their son as the "heart and soul of the operation," spent several years traveling through Europe tasting ice cream before opening their first store.
"He put his personal stamp and touch on all of his ice cream. I remember when they were making White Russian ice cream, and it didn't quite taste the way he wanted it, so he told the blender to pour more vodka into it," said the son with a laugh.
Lee's was among the first ice cream manufacturer to use such ingredients as Oreo cookies and brand-name candy in its products.
It had to change the name of the Oreo flavor in 1980 because of trademark objections from Nabisco -- hence the new name, Oreeeo.
Known as the richest ice cream in Maryland, Lee's is produced at a plant on DeSoto Road in West Baltimore, which also serves as the company's headquarters.
While no longer directly engaged in the manufacturing process, Mr. Garfield was "still busy with a spoon" tasting and testing the final results, according to his son.
While he limited his insurance activities in recent years, Mr. Garfield kept his hand in the ice cream business. "He was never going to retire. Never. He loved the business too much to ever consider retiring," his son said.
Lee's began franchising in 1985 and, in addition to Maryland outlets, has stores in the District of Columbia, Virginia and North Carolina.
The company is also engaged in
retail packaging and has developed a line of products for the retail grocery trade.
Mr. Garfield was born and reared in South Baltimore and was a 1944 graduate of Southern High School. During World War II, he served in the Army and was a member of an Army traveling basketball team.
After his discharge and return home, he studied for several years at the University of Baltimore before entering the insurance business.
He worked for many years as an insurance agent and later as district manager for the Equitable Life Assurance Society. He sold insurance part-time most recently for Sun Life of America.
Mr. Garfield enjoyed collecting big-band and Broadway show recordings, attending the theater and opera and reading.
"He loved to sing -- even when he didn't know the words," his son said.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Garfield is survived by a daughter, Melissa Garfield of Annapolis; two brothers, Irv Garfield and Raymond Garfield; a sister, Freda Reichlyn, all of Pikesville; and a grandson.
Services were held yesterday at Sol Levinson & Bros.