By Douglas Feiden
It was one of the great capers in the modern history of Sag Harbor — a scheme of dubious legality, but enormous cunning — and it helped reroute traffic to the village. Its prime architect: David Lee.
The year was 1968, an era of shuttered factories and silent streets, and Mr. Lee hit on the felicitous idea of planting a sign along Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton that would point eastbound motorists to the left turn that would take them into Sag Harbor.
“It was David’s idea, and the sign was painted green, so it looked just like all the state signs, and it lasted for a couple of years until it finally disappeared,” said Nada Barry, a co-conspirator in the escapade and owner of the Wharf Shop. “At the time, there was no sign that said, ‘Sag Harbor.’”
Also in on the plot was Jack Achille Tagliasacchi, the owner of Il Capuccino Restaurant, who joined Mr. Lee in the dead of night to put up the sign after they decided to “avoid the bureaucracy.” The rationale? “This beautiful village was very quiet at that time, and we needed to do something to build it up,” he said.
After suffering two back-to-back falls a couple of months ago, the man who had diverted East End traffic, siphoned visitors to the Main Street he revered — and literally put Sag Harbor on the map anew — died on Monday night, November 28, at the Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Southampton. He was 88.
Among his many legacies: As a co-founder, with Mr. Tagliasacchi and Ms. Barry, of the Merchants Association of Sag Harbor, better known as MASH, which evolved into the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, he became a symbol of the village’s character, helped build its brand and cachet and broadcast its manifold virtues. Now that it’s a global destination, not everybody needs that sign on the highway to find it anymore.
A member of Temple Adas Israel for 68 years, and a former longtime president who helped revive it from a period of decline, Mr. Lee, who the synagogue describes as its “beloved guiding light,” will be going back to the place he adored.
A funeral service will be held at noon on Thursday, December 1, at the Temple, 30 Atlantic Avenue, with internment to follow immediately after at Chevra Kodetia Cemetery on Route 114. A memorial service will be held on December 28 at the synagogue to accommodate family members living in Israel.
“He would always sit in a row by the door after the services, and he’d get up and kiss all the women as they walked by,” recalled Neal Fagin, the Adas Israel president who took over from Mr. Lee in 1996.
He had hoped to last at least another couple of decades and stay active and engaged, said Joanna Paitchell Lee, his wife of 19 years.
“His mother lived to be 105, and he always said he wanted to make it to at least that age,” Ms. Lee added. “That was the kind of man he was. Right up until the end, he always wanted to get better, he always wanted to see his family, he always wanted to come home, he always wanted to be with me.”
But he was also ready, prepared and saying his loving goodbyes, said Cheri Laviano, the younger of his two daughters from his first wife, Vera, who flew in from Israel to see her father over the long Thanksgiving weekend.
“He was laughing, he was joking, and he was totally coherent,” Ms. Laviano said. “But also, he was saying, ‘Honestly, I’ve had enough, I’m tired. I’ve had a wonderful life. What more could a man want? I’ve had two great wives, two wonderful daughters, a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.’”
The British-born Mr. Lee, who first came to the village with his parents and three siblings in December of 1948, was a civic leader, business booster and tourism promoter nonpareil who devoted the bulk of his life to family, faith, fellowship — and the guiding principles of volunteerism.
And he wore more hats than anyone in the village as community leader-cum-synagogue leader-school board leader-band leader-drummer-emcee-radio personality-property manager-fixer of roofs-licensed realty sales associate-jeweler-watchmaker-village Zoning Board of Appeals member-East Hampton Town housing chairman-kibitzer and storyteller extraordinaire-owner of Cove Men’s Shop and later Cove Jewelers in the space now occupied by Harbor Books-and so much more.
In fact, Mr. Lee routinely carried a minimum of five business cards, he wrote in a reminiscence published in 2007 in “Voices of Sag Harbor: A Village Remembered,” edited by Nina Tobier.
“At present, I carry the following business cards: One for WLNG 92.1 FM; another for Temple Adas Israel, the oldest synagogue on Long Island, as administrator, another for my business in property management,” he recounted. “Also, I have a card for my work as a licensed sales associate for Hampton Realty Group, and one for my service as chairman of the East Hampton Housing Authority.”
Mr. Lee also encapsulated much of the post-World War II history of the village: He joined the Sag Harbor Community band as a drummer in 1958, one year after it was founded, and served as its president for at least a quarter-century.
“One of the first things he’d tell everyone he ever met was, ‘You have to come and listen to the band,’” said Tom Rickenbach, the band’s treasurer and a trombone player who joined in 1991. “He was president right up until the day he died.”
It was part and parcel of his commitment to the village, said Mr. Rickenbach, adding, “His life really touched on everything — business, personal, social, religious, municipal, political, and, of course, the band — and his activities included just about everything there was in this community.”
Rabbi Daniel Geffen at Temple Adas Israel recalls that he and his wife, LuAnne, were “immediately embraced” by Mr. Lee and his wife from the moment they arrived two-and-a-half years ago.
“It brings tears to my eyes to think of leading services and not seeing him in his usual seat,” the rabbi said. “He always sat right by the door, so he could personally welcome and shake the hand of guest and member alike. That was the kind of guy David was. The world has lost a uniquely wonderful man, and he will be missed.”
But some things will not change, Mr. Fagin said, and he quoted Mr. Lee saying that, “As long as I’m alive, the temple will never sell tickets for the High Holy Days.”
Mr. Fagin said every synagogue he knows charges for the holidays, adding, “David always felt we should be a welcoming place, that we needed to be a place for all Jews that wanted to come here without cost. We don’t foresee any change.”
Earlier, Mr. Lee had been a successful merchant and fixture on Main Street. And he even dipped into the inventory of his men’s store in the 1960s to provide some of the polka-dotted bow ties worn by Charley, John Steinbeck’s celebrated dog, on the back of his collar, he told the writer and musician Nancy Remkus in 2015.
“I was once told by somebody, not too long ago, ‘You know, if you did all the work for you, instead of for the community, you’d have been a rich man,’” he mused at the time. “And I said, ‘I’m richer than a hell of a lot of those rich men!’”
The secret of his long healthy life, he told Ms. Remkus, was “prayers and vitamins.” But he elaborated, citing an outlook that came from his mother, who always had a smile on her face and was ready for a laugh, even during the Depression. “Don’t take life too seriously, because it can be wonderful,” he advised. And he would often repeat, “I thank God I came to this country.”
As news of Mr. Lee’s death swept through the village this week, one succinct line was repeatedly echoed, and it was, “Take a walk!” For 25 years, that was his classic sign-off line on his morning show on WLNG, in which he offered community news interspersed with his opinions on things that interested him.
But “take a walk” was more than just a line. It was a way of life for Mr. Lee, who loved to stroll the streets. And spotting him became a daily feature for villagers, too. He was, in fact, an unforgettable sight, walking tall and proud, his presence revealed from blocks away by that mane of thick, wavy gray hair.
“People would always recognize him on the street, and they would call out, ‘Take a walk!’ and I can tell you, he just loved it,” Ms. Lee said.
Among his dozens of other communal memberships, Mr. Lee was a longtime member of the Sag Harbor Lions Club. And so when club president Steve Espach put out word about the funeral services for “Lion Dave,” he emailed members, “Please ‘take a walk’ with me” to Temple Adas Israel.
When former U.S. Representative Michael Forbes, who served the East End from 1995 to 2001, got the news, he wrote from Texas about an old friend who was a “genius at selflessly promoting everything Sag Harbor,” a “red-white-and-blue American patriot who truly was ‘Mr. Sag Harbor,’” and the “lifeblood of community service.”
And Mr. Forbes concluded, “In honor of Dave Lee, let’s all go out and ‘take a walk.’ Till we meet again, my friend.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Laviano is already visualizing the bench the Lee family intends to sponsor, hopefully outside his old jewelry store. “Take a walk,” it will say. “We love you David Lee.”