SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was remembered Sunday for his humility, integrity and infectious smile during a public celebration of his life at City Hall, attended by family members, former staff, politicians and residents.
Lee, who died last week at age 65, had a love of life and a devotion to public service, said Gov. Jerry Brown, one of several prominent Democrats who spoke during the ceremony.
“I never saw him down,” Brown said. “Every time you saw him he was happy, he was expressing a very upbeat attitude.”
Lee, also a Democrat, was San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor and a former civil rights lawyer who led the city out of recession and into an economic recovery driven by the technology industry.
He died early Dec. 12 after collapsing the night before at a grocery store. The medical examiner’s office has not released a cause of death.
Acting Mayor London Breed recalled the rapturous reception Lee received during an official visit to China, where his parents were born.
“He was like a superstar. An icon,” she said. “Everywhere we went and to everyone we met, Lee was like Beyoncé with a mustache.”
Former Mayor Willie Brown said Lee had many qualities that made him better than his predecessors.
“We were not always candid. Ed Lee was. We were not always diplomatic. Ed Lee was,” Brown said.
One area in which Lee didn’t shine — telling jokes.
“He told terrible jokes,” said Brown, evoking laughter. “He laughed because he was trying to build enthusiasm for his jokes.”
His daughters, Tania Lee and Brianna Lee, shared the microphone and remembered their father for his boundless energy when it came to serving San Francisco, whether it was by giving speeches, stuffing envelopes or waking up early on weekends to paint over graffiti.
“It was absolute love for the city that kept him going,” Brianna Lee said.
The women announced the formation of the Edmund M. Lee Community Fund that will continue to address issues important to the late mayor including care for the homeless and fighting discrimination.
U.S. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both from San Francisco, also eulogized Lee.
Lee “leaves an enduring, inspiring legacy that generations of San Franciscans will enjoy,” Pelosi said.
The memorial was also marked with musical performances including a choir and a pre-taped segment of Tony Bennett singing, “I left my heart in San Francisco.”
Lee’s casket was not present, as it was on Friday when his body laid in repose in the rotunda of City Hall.
Local celebrities, government workers and residents came to say goodbye to Lee on Friday. Many stopped momentarily before his closed casket that was draped in an American flag and behind velvet rope. Some bowed or prayed, saluted or cried before continuing to a side room where they could write condolences.
Outside the building, floral bouquets and handwritten notes filled half of the steps.
Edwin Mah Lee was born May 5, 1952, in Seattle to immigrants from Toisan, a rural village in China’s southern province of Guangdong. His father was a cook, and his mother a seamstress. They raised Lee and his five siblings in public housing.
Lee was city administrator when he was appointed to serve the remainder of former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s term in 2011. He was elected to the position later that year, and he was re-elected in 2015.
Supporters say Lee tackled homelessness and built affordable housing unlike any San Francisco mayor before him.
Critics blamed him for a modern-day San Francisco where jobs are plenty but housing prices are among America’s highest.
But supporters and opponents praised him as a kind, polite man whose corny jokes will be missed.