He spent 29 years covering them for the Green Bay Press-Gazette — his first game back in 1945 — and then became the team’s public relations director in 1974. His was a journey that included names like Hutson and Herber, Lambeau and Lombardi, and Starr and Favre, and included stops at the first 40 Super Bowls. Lee didn’t just chronicle the Packers’ history, he became a part of it, and an icon in his own right. In 2004, he transitioned to a role as the team’s official historian, but anyone that had ever talked to him knew he unofficially held that title for years. On Thursday, Lee died at the age of 90. And the Packers lost a legend.
Lee was interviewing me for an internship in the Packers Public Relations office back on that spring afternoon. I remember trying to relax in my chair as he sat behind his desk looking through a black binder of photocopied newspaper articles I had written in college, along with a resume highlighted by a stint with the Milwaukee Mustangs Arena Football Team, and an internship on the set of the “Mike Holmgren Show.” He took time to tell stories about the Lombardi years — when he covered the team along with one of my college professors, Gene Hintz, who worked for United Press International. If I didn’t get this gig, I remember thinking to myself at the time, it would still be a pretty great day.
I did get the internship, as it turned out, and a temporary desk at the counter in the media library, down the green, logo-emblazed carpeted hall from Lee’s office. That proximity would lead to some memorable conversations. I wrote a story on Hutson for the 1994 Bishops Charities Game following the dedication of the Don Hutson Center. Lee was my biggest source for the piece. His memory for even the smallest details was remarkable, and he described touchdown catches from Hutson nearly 50 years after they occurred with the clarity that I would describe what I ate for breakfast that day. His knowledge was encyclopedic. He was the history section on Packers.com before the Internet existed. And he conveyed those days of yore with a wit and style and distinctive baritone voice that was uniquely his … though I’d like to think I do a decent impression.
That flair helped Lee win a Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year Award in 1967 and never left him in his role as director of public relations, where he was a jovial and beloved facilitator who wanted to help members of the media tell Packers stories to a fan base that remained loyal even through the lean years when winning seasons were few and far between. Whether he was writing up a biography in the Packers Media Guide or penning a column for some Packer publication, his style evoked a bygone era that celebrated the games and players in heroic fashion.
It was Grantland Rice-esque, yet very Lee. He had a descriptive prose all his own. Brett Favre was a “genial Mississippian,” while Reggie White was a “mountainous Tennessean.” Lee could drop words like “monolithic” or “loquacious” and phrases like “bulwark of the offensive line,” in a way that not only never seemed out of place, but in a very Packers sort of way brought a comfortable old-school feel to the modern era.
He was also big on middle names. It wasn’t just Brett Favre. It was Brett Lorenzo Favre, which Lee announced at every Favre press conference for 16 seasons. He also had a great sense of humor. Lee was known to do an occasional mic check from the podium with an announcement that Mossy Cade was on his way down. A chuckle would always follow the absurdity of that thought.
Lee would kick off every press conference with “Questions, please,” and end every one with his signature, “Does that do it?” Favre, of course, couldn’t resist beating Lee to the punch with his own “Does that do it?” impersonation of Lee after the final question, and calling him by his full name, Leland. That never failed to get a big smile out of Lee, who named Favre and Hutson as his two all-time favorite players.
So many of my favorite memories of covering the Packers came courtesy of Lee. I’ll always remember hurrying down the steps from the old, pre-Lambeau renovated press box with Lee — who preferred the steps to the elevator to get down to field level even in his 70s — after a Sunday night victory over the Denver Broncos in 1993 that ended with back-to-back sacks by Reggie White. The stadium literally shook with chants of “REG-GIE, REG-GIE!” from a sold-out crowd who could feel that this was a team destined for greatness. Lee and I felt those waves of vibrating sound, too, and he told me he had never heard the crowd be so loud. That meant something coming from him.
Heading into the 1994 draft, Lee shared a story with me prior to the first round about how back in 1989, coach Lindy Infante approached general manager Tom Braatz and said he really had a feeling that they should take undersized running back Barry Sanders out of Oklahoma State with their No. 2 overall pick. Braatz would have none of that talk and stuck with Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, a player Lee said Braatz personally saw work out and came back from East Lansing, Mich., drooling over. We all know how that worked out.
Lee also called me into his office prior to the start of training camp in 1994 — I was back interning for a second season — to tell me that all they could offer me was $200 a month for my services. Truth be told, I would’ve paid $200 a month for the opportunity. But Lee went on to ask if I might be interested in having my own room out at St. Norbert College where the team stayed during training camp. He hoped that giving me a place to live and letting me eat me meals with the team would help offset the cost of staying in Green Bay. My only delay in answering was the shock of how great that would be.
Lee, of course, took the time one day at lunch to call me over to eat with him and coach Mike Holmgren — or Michael George Holmgren, to Lee — who spun tales of his recruiting trips to USC and UCLA when he was still a star quarterback himself and not yet a quarterbacks guru. It’s another memory, thanks to Lee, that I’ll never forget. At the end of camp that year, Lee asked if I might want to travel to New Orleans with the team for a preseason game. Again, I was stunned. But that’s just the kind of guy Lee was. He had a kindness and genuineness that was on par with that steel-trap memory. And if you felt that way he did about the team, you were good with him.
When I was done interning with the team and began writing for Packer Report, Lee got me into the “war room” for an “insider look” at the fourth round of the 1996 draft. This was before ESPN and NFL Network regularly set up shop there. It was hallowed ground. And as Lee walked me through the door and the eyes of Holmgren and Ron Wolf and the rest of the coaching and pro personnel staff fell upon me, he smiled and said, “Just be a fly on the wall.” It’s fair to say my eyes bugged out of my head. And I was a fly that wrote down every last detail I saw.
Over the years, I always looked forward to seeing Lee in the press box. You’d wait your turn to shake his hand, pat him on the arm and ask him how he was doing, and he’d often have a comment about Wausau (my current residence) or Sheboygan (my hometown) and call me “W. Keith.” Lee retired on Dec. 31, 2007, and his absence was a void on game days, not quite replaced by seeing his name on the well-deserved 2003 plaque re-naming it Lee Remmel Press Box.
I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity Lee gave to an eager, nervous college kid who loved the Green Bay Packers two decades ago. But all those stories and gestures of kindness, the written words and that voice — and maybe most of all, a palpable passion that was absolutely inspiring — will stick with me for what I can only hope is 40 more years of covering the team.
Rest in peace, Lee. And thanks.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.