During 31 years of employment with the Kansas City Kansas Parks and Recreation Department, it’s hard to wrap your mind around how many lives Beatrice Lee must have positively impacted. Add to that, 20 more years of community and political leadership since her retirement, and it’s easy to see why the UG Board of commissioners voted this spring to rename the John F. Kennedy Community Center (JFK) the Beatrice L. Lee Community Center.
On Sat., Sept. 30, from 2 to 5 p.m., the entire community is invited out to the center at 1210 N. 10th St., KCK, to honor, recognize and applaud this great lady during the official renaming ceremony.
For those who aren’t lucky enough to know her personally, Bea or “mother” as she’s often referred to, you’re not out of luck. She’s still moving and shaking in the community. But older Kansas Citians will remember her as the stern but loving director of the JFK Center. The youth loved “Mrs. Lee” because they knew she cared, and she loved them back.
Elnora Jefferson, president of the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association, calls Bea’s love for children, “universal. A lot of people call her ‘mother,’ and I can understand why. She has that nurturing presence and touch, but she also has that firmness.”
Born and raised in KCK, Bea began her career with the KCK Recreation Department in 1964 at the Sumner Recreation Center. She organized recreation programs for youth and single parents who lived in at the near-by 400-unit Juniper Gardens residential complex. Her many duties included making parents aware of programs and resources available to them, recruiting volunteers to tutor youth, helping youth with homework, organizing after-school activities, and creating Teen Town, a night of activities on Fridays for 13, 14, and 15 years old.
She did such an outstanding job, after just one year she was promoted to center director. Director and continued to grow the center’s programming. She partnered with Wyandotte County Extension, an organization that teaches life skills, and held classes that taught attendees, among other things, how to complete job applications and interview for jobs. Some attendees earned their G.E.D.’s and within two years, more than 50 single mothers who had been relying on public assistance, found jobs and moved off the assistance rolls.
When Sumner closed in 1976 Bea move to JFK, where she developed summer youth programs that served more than 500 participants each week. She also developed an after-program that included tutoring for junior-high (later middle) and high school students. Using her connections, charm and sheer will, she was able to recruit retired teachers to volunteer their time.
Although Bea never held political office, she immersed herself in local politics and wielded considerable political influence. A lifelong member of the Kansas Democratic Party, she helped form the Rebecca Vinson Women’s Democratic Club. Deborah Newton, youngest of Bea’s six children, says her mother was “very influential behind the scenes. She’s never ran for office, but she’s always been at her kitchen table with different people running for offices … leading and guiding and directing.”
In comments on her mother’s ability to help her chosen candidates win, Sheila Lee, Bea’s oldest child, says her mother a “ran several campaigns for people, and those individuals were ultimately elected.”
Bea retired from the city in 1995 but she didn’t retire from public service. She served for more than 20 years as the president of the Douglass-Sumner Neighborhood Association and she is always the one who organizes the neighborhood clean ups. When drugs began infesting the neighborhood, Bea stepped up.
“She got groups together and they marched in front of the drug houses and [got] the police involved, and she played a big part in getting the drugs out of her neighborhood,” says Deborah. “She orchestrated all of that and put her life at risk.”
Bea is also a founding member of the Douglass-Sumner Neighborhood Business Revitalization, an organization created in 2012, and a member of the Historic Northeast-Midtown Association. She has served on 10 local boards and still serves on the Unified Governments Parks and Recreation Board.
Her daughters says she’s received at least 75 awards and recognition but this recognition has to be among the biggest of them in depth of its recognition and in size. It’s a pretty big deal when you get a building named after you, especially one as big as the Beatrice L. Center that extends across a full city block.
Once “the” recreation center for the community, JFK was closed for several years creating a void in services. Community members, led by Chester Owens and Carolyn Wyatt, petitioned for a got the center reopened. Today the center serves as a community center for groups to meet, serves as a practice location for dance teams, and sponsors basketball leagues, with soccer and volleyball leagues soon to come. A few annual favorite events held at the center includes the annual Thanksgiving Dinner for Seniors and the Christmas holiday Santa experience.
Discussions are being held about the concept of making the facility more of a “cultural” center for the community and about the potential of using it as a place to honor individuals from the northeast community who have given vigorously given their time and service to the neighborhood.
The future of the center is still unclear, but certainly the community must make sure the center reflects well the service and name of its new namesake.