Santa Cruz’s Walt Whitman: Paul Lee’s legacy in Santa Cruz is immense, on campus and in town
Paul Lee didn’t last long on the faculty of UCSC. But the reach of his mind and his work are to be found everywhere in Santa Cruz, from our greenbelt, to the Homeless Garden Project, to the long-time Penny University. He came to Santa Cruz in 1966 and became a foundational figure in many organizations, an activist in a number of progressive movements, a mentor and father figure to some, an inspiration and moral lodestar to many more. His friends recall so much about him over the years – but especially those hugs.
One day in 1965, a young Harvard-educated philosophy professor looking for work named Paul Lee saw an article in The New York Times, announcing that another Harvard man had just accepted a position at the new campus of the University of California, in Santa Cruz. Unbeknownst to anyone, including Lee himself, that moment was a fateful pivot point not only in the life of the ambitious young philosopher, but in the cultural history of Santa Cruz itself.
Lee happened to know the man mentioned in the Times piece, botanist Kenneth Thimann who was hired as the first provost of Crown College at UCSC. The two men went to tea, and Lee talked himself into a job.
More than half a century later, on Oct. 20, 2022, Paul Lee died at the age of 91 in Santa Cruz. It turns out that Lee didn’t last that long on the faculty of UCSC. But in the history of the city itself, he leaves behind a staggering legacy as a foundational figure in many organizations, an activist in a number of progressive movements, a mentor and father figure to some, an inspiration and moral lodestar to many more, an influence and friend to even more. A one-time aspiring Lutheran minister who later became a central figure in the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, Lee was an intellectual powerhouse deeply rooted in philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks. He was, say those closest to him, a teacher, in the most expansive sense of that term, willing not only to pass along the wisdom of the ages, but to inspire and cultivate the innate curiosity and humanity in others, and make vital connections between people.
Lee founded, co-founded or otherwise inspired the creation of a wide array of enterprises which, taken together, form a big part of the backbone of Santa Cruz’s unique socio-political profile. Lee and his long-time friend UCSC’s first provost Page Smith founded the William James Association, the influential public-service organization that, among other things, has been bringing the creative arts into prisons for more than four decades. He and another long-time friend Herb Schmidt founded the Whole Earth Restaurant on the UCSC campus in 1970, inspired by Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog.” He also brought to Santa Cruz horticulturalist Alan Chadwick who formed the UCSC Farm and Garden and who was a critical influence in the blooming of the organic food movement in Santa Cruz.
In the late 1970s, Lee spearheaded a ballot initiative to stop development in the Pogonip region and preserve it as a greenbelt. He founded the Homeless Garden Project, and, for more than 40 years, he was a tireless advocate for people experiencing homelessness and a stalwart supporter of the Foods Not Bombs program.
Yet, his signature legacy may be the Penny University, the improbably idealistic venture that sprouted in the wake of Lee’s departure from UCSC. It was a weekly salon that began in the mid ’70s at Caffe Pergolesi and eventually moved to the Calvary Episcopal Church, offering a kind of graduate-level seminar with Lee, Page Smith, and fabled UCSC art professor Mary Holmes tackling a wide variety of topics. And it was free to anyone who walked through the door. “Penny U” was still going strong up to the pandemic shutdown in 2020, with Lee still the man around which the whole enterprise revolved.
If you ever experienced a Paul Lee hug, you’d remember it. Eric Thiermann, who took a philosophy class with Lee back in the early days of UCSC, said, “His arms were always open. When he’d hug you, he’d always say, ‘You let go first.’”
Lee’s Spring Street home was always open for friends and acquaintances, to talk about philosophy, politics, world affairs or anything else over a Friday afternoon martini. Whether it was joy or anger or annoyance, Lee rarely held back from expressing himself and encouraged others to do so as well. He had little use for social customs, preferring a kind of emotional authenticity borne out of the 1960s counter-culture.
To many, he was Santa Cruz’s own Walt Whitman, an exuberant and intellectually restless spirit who was never afraid to display his messy and inconvenient humanity. “You know that poem ‘Song of Myself’?” said Lee friend and fellow philosopher Aleksandra Wolska. “‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’ That was Paul Lee. He would be talking about himself, but, at the same time, he was inclusive and he was ecumenical, and when he said everybody was welcome, he meant it.”
“Paul was a Midwest guy who just careened through life,” said Santa Cruz architect and long-time friend Mark Primack of Lee who grew up in Milwaukee and returned to Wisconsin every summer. “He was idealistic and intrepid. He acted on impulse like no one else I ever knew, but he was always intelligent enough to survive that. I mean, most people hit the wall hard. But Paul was resilient, and he was observant enough that he could skate through all kinds of situations. He was so bold.”
Primack considered Lee a mentor and credits Lee with convincing him to settle in Santa Cruz back in the mid-1970s. “Paul was always recruiting young people to do things,” he said. “Paul had the ideas and he grabbed young people who didn’t have a lot of experience but had a lot of idealism and set them down these paths.”
The path Lee set for Primack involved creating a referendum to preserve the Pogonip as a permanent greenbelt adjoining the city. “Oftentimes, people will say, ‘Oh, you and Paul Lee did that.’ And I’ll be like, ‘No. Paul Lee did that.’ I was nobody. It was all because Paul had the confidence and presence in the community that we could do something like that, and I could contribute to it.”
“Paul was a great spark plug of innovation,” said long-time Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton. “He always got big ideas out there.” Patton’s tenure ended before Lee turned to his most persistent activism on behalf of the homeless. Lee’s assertive activism in that realm led him to tangle with Patton’s successor, Mardi Wormhoudt. Patton’s relationship with Lee was more rooted at the Penny University. And just a few years ago, Lee called the former Supervisor and attorney and recruited him to work at the state level on drafting a legislative proposal on climate change.
Herb Schmidt, 92, was the former Lutheran pastor at UCSC and Lee’s first friend in Santa Cruz, dating back to 1966. The two men remained close friends until Lee’s death. “His primary concern was the homeless,” said Schmidt, “and he continued that until the very end.”
All of that activism came at the expense of what could have been a great academic career. “He was a pre-eminent scholar,” said long-time friend and former UCSC professor Ralph Abraham. “And he was an extraordinarily skilled lecturer.” Abraham and Lee first met at a campus demonstration against the Vietnam War, Lee dressed in a scholar’s robes, Abraham in an American-flag shirt, Abbie Hoffman-style. A photograph of the two professors ran on the front of many newspapers and while Abraham had tenure and was protected, Lee did not. When the university later denied Lee tenure, Page Smith —along with Dean McHenry the most seminal figure in the founding of UCSC — resigned from the faculty in protest.
“He was a rebel,” said former student and friend Eric Thiermann of Lee. “I mean, he always had a wonderful cause. He wasn’t a rebel just to be antagonistic. He was a magnet for people who had alternative ideas and who were at the forefront of a lot of movements that were circulating at the time.”
In his last days — in fact on his 91st birthday in September — Lee was celebrated at a ceremony at his home in which Santa Cruz mayor Sonja Brunner read to him a proclamation declaring “Paul Lee Day.”
“Paul loved being the center of attention,” said Thiermann. “He had so many TS Eliot poems to share.”
Before coming to Santa Cruz, Lee had been editor of the Psychedelic Review, with fellow Harvard misfits Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Though he veered away from the use of psychedelics, Lee remained a hippie at heart. Thiermann remembers Lee bringing Beat icon Allen Ginsberg to the university. “All these alternative people show up,” he said. “The Hell’s Angels showed up. And there was Paul in the middle of the whole thing. And he was giving hugs and kisses to everybody.”
A memorial celebration of the life of Paul Lee will take place at the Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Soquel on Dec. 18, from 2 to 4 p.m.