William K. "Bill" Lee III, who rose from being a State Roads Commission laborer to chief engineer for the State Highway Administration, died Tuesday from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The Cockeysville resident was 82.
"What Bill Lee had was the very rare combination of people and technical skills. Not all technical people have people skills, but he knew how to manage and everyone loved him," said William K. Hellman, a former state transportation secretary and a former partner in the Baltimore civil engineering firm of Rummel Klepper & Kahl.
"He was a good manager because he had both of those skills," said Mr. Hellman. "Bill was a gentleman to all, from the top right on down to the guy who turned out the lights."
The son of a Baltimore County Bureau of Sanitation superintendent and a homemaker, William Koontz Lee III was born in Cockeysville and raised in Reisterstown. He was a 1946 graduate of Franklin High School, where he lettered in five varsity sports.
Mr. Lee began his career with the old State Roads Commission in 1948 as a laborer and then was promoted to inspector.
He served four years in the Air Force during the Korean War as an air traffic controller and then returned to his old job.
While working during the day, Mr. Lee attended the Johns Hopkins University's McCoy College at night, earning a civil engineering degree in 1964.
From 1967 to 1979, he was district state highway engineer based in Salisbury for the Lower Eastern Shore. In 1979, he was promoted to chief highway engineer for the State Highway Administration, which replaced the State Roads Commission.
Mr. Hellman attributed Mr. Lee's success to his days serving as a district engineer, which prepared him well for his later role as chief engineer.
"When you're the district engineer on the Lower Eastern Shore, you're far away from Baltimore. You are the king of the roads there," recalled Mr. Hellman.
"And when you're a district engineer, you do the planning, building, construction and have all of the political headaches. You get all of the problems, and they all go to the district engineer," he said. "He had big projects, and that's where you learn. It's where you get the issues."
During his career with the highway administration, Mr. Lee worked on some of the most important road projects in the state, including Interstate 795, Interstate 68 and the Sideling Hill project, Route 32, U.S. 15, the rehabilitation of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on I-495 and U.S. 1 at the Conowingo Dam.
"People respected him because he had worked up through the system and he knew their jobs and this worked to his advantage, and I don't mean that in the wrong way," said Mr. Hellman. "And he had the right idea when working with young engineers right out of college. He was willing to share what he knew and mentor them."
After leaving the State Highway Administration in 1984, Mr. Lee was named vice president of Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, a Sparks transportation consulting firm, as a branch manager of the company's regional office in York, Pa.
Mr. Lee supervised more than 125 engineers and technicians working in highway design, surveying, construction claims, construction management and other transportation-related projects.
He took a leave of absence from JMT and brought his expertise to the Maryland Transit Administration during the building of the light rail line from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie, as a special construction assistant to the project manager.
Mr. Lee's responsibilities included managing the project's $326 million budget, coordinating construction schedules and representing the MTA during the design phase as its liaison and construction adviser.
When the line opened for operation in 1992, Mr. Lee returned to JMT, where he was in charge of monitoring and coordinating the firm's open-ended contracts and reviewing all construction plans.
"In talking to people about Bill Lee, one word comes to mind, and that is 'gentleman,'" said Kenneth B. Merrill of Bel Air, a civil engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff who got to know Mr. Lee during the building of the light rail line.
"Bill was a real pro and unassuming. He could work with people and get things done. He helped keep the MTA focused. He never got mad unless he was on the golf course," said Mr. Merrill, laughing.
Mr. Lee retired in 1999.
He was a past president of the Maryland Association of Engineers. He was a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a recipient of its Distinguished Service Award in 1995.
Mr. Lee also was a member of the American Society of Highway Engineers, the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials, and the County Engineers Association of Maryland.
He enjoyed sports, reading, crossword puzzles and going to the movies.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane.
Mr. Lee is survived by his wife of 46 years, the former Betty Henning; two daughters, Jennifer Lee Lenz of Pasadena and Cynthia J. Russell of Midland, N.C.; a stepson, Christopher S. Kane of Salisbury; a stepdaughter, Deborah A. Mullen of Lutherville; a brother, Alfred Lee of Houston; and six grandchildren. Another stepson, Michael B. Kane, died in 1998. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.