Tuesday, April 14, 2020

John Maxim Lee - A Tribute

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of John Maxim Lee on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020 at the age of 93. Jack, as he was known throughout his life, was the first grandchild of Frances Glessner Lee, and the eldest great-grandchild of John and Frances Glessner. Being eight when John Glessner died, he was also the last of the line to have distinct memories of his great-grandfather, thus forming a link to the earlier generation that is now broken. This tribute to Jack is a bit more personal than most of my articles, for in addition to recording the facts of a life well lived and one worthy of celebrating, I also wish to record my personal memories of him and my gratitude for the opportunity to get to know him over the past nine years.
                                                 Bill Tyre, Curator & Program Director

Notation of John Maxim Lee's birth in

John J. Glessner's pocket calendar for 1927

John Maxim Lee was born in Hartford, Connecticut on April 5, 1927 to John Glessner and Percy Maxim Lee, who were residing in Amityville, New York at the time. His parents had accomplished careers and will be the subject of future blog articles. His father, John Glessner Lee, at his retirement, was the director of research at United Technologies (formerly United Aircraft Corporation), was one of the six men who designed the well-known Ford tri-motor plane, and was a co-founder of the University of Hartford. Mother Percy Maxim Lee served as president of the National League of Women Voters from 1950 to 1958, working with several U.S. presidents in various roles with the League from the 1940s into the 1960s.

Jack with his sister Percy, May 1930

Jack with his mother and sister Percy, 1932

By the time Jack was nine, he had been joined by three siblings – sisters Percy and Frances (Nan), and brother Hamilton (Tony). 

Applethorne, the Lee family home in Farmington, CT, circa 1936

The Lees built their new home, Applethorne, in Farmington, Connecticut in 1934; it was designed by the well-known Hartford architect Carl J. Malmfeldt. It would remain the family home for the next forty-one years.

Jack with his grandfather, Blewett Lee, at left, 1936. Jack's father,
John Glessner Lee is at right.

Jack was proud of his Glessner heritage, but also the other lines from which he was descended. This included his paternal grandfather, Blewett Lee (who married Frances Glessner in 1898), a distinguished attorney, general counsel for the Illinois Central Railroad, and the only son of General Stephen Dill Lee, the first president of Mississippi State University.

Jack and Percy at the Maxim summer home, Bill Hill, in Lyme, CT, September 1931.
His mother noted on the back, "Jack is flying a glider, hence the attitude."

His middle name, Maxim, was his mother’s maiden name. Her father's father was Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, the inventor of the Maxim machine gun, and her mother’s father was William T. Hamilton, governor of Maryland from 1880 to 1884. Her father, Hiram Percy Maxim, invented the Maxim silencer and motor cars/horseless carriages. Jack spent part of his summers at the Maxim summer home, Bill Hill, in Lyme, Connecticut. Built in 1766, it was one of the oldest houses in the state.

Jack, being held by his father at right, holding the

left cuff of the coat of his great-grandfather, John J. Glessner,
at The Rocks, August 1932. Jack's sister Percy stands
in front of John Glessner.

Jack also spent time at the Glessners’ summer estate, The Rocks, in Littleton, New Hampshire, and it was here that he came to know his great-grandfather. His clearest memory was of John Glessner peeling an orange at the dinner table, holding it on a fork at its base, and then removing the peel in one long piece, after which he distributed the sections on separate forks to each person around the table.

In 1937, the Lee family purchased land on Mason’s Island in Mystic, Connecticut and this became an important part of Jack’s world for the remainder of his life, instilling a passion for sailing.

Jack presenting the Maxim trophy at a gasoline model plane meet,
July 1936. His father, John Glessner Lee, looks on at left.

Jack had many memories of “Grandmother Lee,” i.e. Frances Glessner Lee. As a child, he proudly helped produce maple syrup at The Rocks, and then gave some to his grandmother. Soon after, he heard his parents discussing the fact that all her hair had fallen out, and he feared his maple syrup was the culprit! (It was not). He also remembered seeing her diligently at work on her Nutshell Studies, and he treasured the drill press he used, which had come from her Nutshell workshop.

Drill press in Jack Lee's workshop, originally used
in the construction of the Nutshell Studies

As World War II was raging in Europe, the Lee household was suddenly expanded. Anne and Daphne James, the daughters of an Oxford University professor were sent to the United States and lived with the family until the war ended. Additionally, the Lees also took in the Wohl family, who had escaped Nazi Germany.

In 1941, Jack was admitted to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. It was here that he met his future wife, Rosalie Benton, the daughter of his Latin professor. He graduated in May 1945, just days after V-E Day, earning a $50 prize for showing the most improvement during his four years at the Academy. He immediately joined the Army Air Corps, being stationed at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, and then at Buckley Field in Denver, Colorado. This was most convenient, as Rosalie Benton was by this time a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was promoted to sergeant shortly before being discharged in November 1946.

He applied for, and was admitted to, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the GI Bill, and on February 11, 1948 he and Rosalie were married in Boulder. He earned a BS in economics and chemical engineering and it was during this period that his first two children, Virginia (Gigi) and Stephen were born. His sister Percy recalled an amusing incident:

“It was when Jack was at MIT that Grandmother Lee pulled up in front of Jack and Rosalie’s little army house in what my mother called ‘her 27-foot-long Packard.’ She said it took up the whole street and was very impressive, but embarrassing, I think, for Jack and Rosalie. But they had tea . . . Grandmother always sat in front with the chauffeur because it was too bouncy in the back.”

Rosalie recalled on one of these visits that Grandmother Lee brought a box of chocolates as a gift, but requesting that Rosalie return the white quilted liner paper atop the chocolates, as she thought it would work well for the ceiling in one of her Nutshells.

Jack presenting a gift to his grandmother, Frances Glessner Lee,
on the occasion of her 80th birthday, March 25, 1958

In 1951, Jack accepted a position with the DuPont Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware, working as an engineer specializing in developing a process for extracting refractory metals from their ores. In 1954, the Lees’ third child, a daughter Martha (Molly) was born. It was also during this time that Jack and Rosalie were invited to attend a luncheon of the Harvard Associates in Police Science, as a surprise for Grandmother Lee. She was surprised indeed, and they noted the enormous respect that the police officers had for her.

After a short stint at the National Research Corporation working on vacuum processes and equipment, Jack accepted a new position with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in East Hartford, Connecticut, remaining there until his retirement 30 years later. He worked on the development of alternative energy systems such as solar, wind, and thermal conversion, but his most significant work was with the space program. In 1960, Pratt & Whitney became involved in the planning and development of the Apollo Fuel Cell program to land a man on the moon. Jack worked on the development, design, manufacture, and testing of the fuel cells, being promoted to the Program Manager of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Fuel Cells, which provided power for the Command and Service Modules on all the Apollo missions.

Apollo fuel cells

Later, Jack also led the development of the fuel cells used for the space shuttle. One day, while looking at a framed photo of the space shuttle in his home, I asked about this work. His comment was that he remembered vividly the day that the last space shuttle mission ended successfully, noting with pride that the fuel cells had performed perfectly on every single mission.

Fuel cell for the space shuttle

Throughout these years, Jack was actively involved in his community, serving as a corporator of the Renbrook School, and as the first president of the Board of Friends of Public Television. He also served as the president of the Hartt School of Music and on the Mystic Harbor Commission.

Upon retirement, Jack and Rosalie were able to fully pursue their passion for sailing. They spent four years sailing the Caribbean in their ketch, Aurora, both becoming Commodores in the Seven Seas Cruising Association. They then spent five years aboard their motor sailor, Aurora II, exploring the rivers and canals of Europe.

In 2002, they built a home on Mason’s Island in Mystic on a portion of the property his parents had acquired in the 1930s.

Jack at the 2011 groundbreaking ceremony

My first opportunity to meet Jack and Rosalie took place on June 1, 2011 when they traveled to Chicago for the recreation of the groundbreaking ceremony for Glessner House, which had occurred exactly 125 years earlier to the day. The original ceremony in 1886 included his grandmother and her brother George each digging a shovel full of dirt to officially start the construction of the house. Jack, using a special spade, dug two holes before a large assembled crowd, into which were planted heirloom roses.

Rosalie and Jack Lee (bottom row, 4th and 5th from left), with
Glessner family reunion attendees, August 2012

Jack and Rosalie returned to Glessner House the next year for a Glessner family reunion. He was one of seventeen direct descendants of the Glessners to attend from around the country, many of the attendees having never met previously.

Rosalie and Jack at their home in Mystic, CT, April 14, 2013

In April 2013, exactly seven years ago this week, I headed to The Rocks estate with Glessner docent/board member John Waters. The Lees had invited us to visit them at their home in Mystic, and we were warmly welcomed, enjoying their hospitality overnight before continuing our journey. We were fortunate to return to Mystic for visits in 2015 and 2017.

Presenting Jack and Rosalie with a certificate honoring
Frances Glessner Lee, from the Chicago Chapter, DAR, April 2015

Jack examining the "Three Room Dwelling" Nutshell Study,
Baltimore, MD, October 28, 2015

In 2015, the 70th annual Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Police Science was held in Baltimore at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland. I was asked to come and speak on the life and career of Frances Glessner Lee, and Jack and Rosalie, along with other family members came for the day, enjoying the opportunity to see the famous Nutshell Studies. We were all treated to a fine dinner that evening, reminiscent of the elaborate banquets Frances Glessner Lee would plan for the seminar attendees.

Jack Lee at the dinner following the opening of the "Murder is Her Hobby" exhibit
at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., October 19, 2017.
Top row (L-R): sister Percy Lee Langstaff, brother-in-law Richard Heminway,
sister Frances Lee Heminway, wife Rosalie Lee.

October 2017 found Jack and Rosalie and many other family members gathered in Washington, D.C. for the opening of the exhibit “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” which opened at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  What a special day that was, seeing how much interest people took in Frances Glessner Lee’s career, and her amazing craftsmanship of the Nutshells. A family dinner followed, and I was honored to be invited, the only non-family member included in the festivities.

Bronze medal awarded to Warder, Bushnell & Glessner
at the 1900 Paris Exposition

During these visits, Jack and Rosalie generously donated several items to the house. These included wonderful pen and ink sketches of Glessner house and Blewett Lee’s ancestral home in Columbus, Mississippi, executed by John Glessner Lee. A bronze medal awarded to the Warder, Bushnell & Glessner company at the Paris Exposition of 1900, and several books including one which was the assembled patents issued to John Glessner Lee over the decades, were among additional donations.

Soon after the 2017 exhibit opening, Jack and Rosalie, aided by their daughter Virginia, made arrangements for Fanny’s bed, which had been used by generations of their family, to be returned to Glessner House, and thus the project to restore her bedroom was begun.

My last visit with Jack and Rosalie took place in October 2019. I was quite surprised and pleased when they announced their intention to return the remaining three pieces of furniture to complete Fanny’s bedroom – two side chairs and a side table – and I was most relieved to find that they all fit into my car! Although Jack’s health had declined since I last saw him in 2017, I was still able to enjoy his gentle nature, sharp mind, and quiet sense of humor.

One of the two side chairs returned by Jack and Rosalie Lee,
as it appeared after reupholstering, April 8, 2020

Ironically, the two side chairs for Fanny’s bedroom were returned from the upholsterers on April 8th, and I immediately took pictures of the room and sent them off to Jack, who by this point was at a skilled nursing facility. I do not know if he saw the pictures before he passed away just four days later. But I do remember specifically how pleased he and Rosalie were that the pieces were coming back home to Prairie Avenue, where they would be cared for and appreciated by visitors.

Jack died on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020, exactly one week after his 93rd birthday. By coincidence, his great-grandfather, John Glessner, died one week before his 93rd birthday, so Jack outlived him by just two weeks. He leaves his wife of 72 years, Rosalie, his two daughters, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Jack and Rosalie in the main hall of Glessner House, June 2011

I will always consider one of the highlights of my years with Glessner House to be the opportunity to have known Jack and to have shared many happy times with him and Rosalie here in Chicago, at their home in Mystic, and in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He first came to me as a descendant of the Glessners, but over the years, I came to have a great deal of respect for his character, his many accomplishments both in his career and in service to his community, and for the fine family he left behind. I mourn his loss, but celebrate a life well lived.

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