Hundreds of politicians, family members and friends of former New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee attended his funeral Wednesday at St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue.
Lee died Sunday of natural causes. He was 86 years old. Lee was mayor of New Haven for eight terms, serving from 1954 to 1969. In that time, Lee initiated many of the city’s urban renewal projects, earning the love of his supporters and the ire of his opponents.
“We celebrate a man of unending hope,” said Timothy Shriver, president and CEO of the Special Olympics, who delivered Lee’s eulogy. “He was a poet of the possible.”
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and former mayors John Daniels and Frank Logue ’48 attended the funeral. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who represents Connecticut’s 3rd District, was also present.
Lee’s daughter Sarah Lee delivered the first reading. Rev. Raymond Barry, a friend of Lee’s, delivered the homily.
“[Lee] loved the community. He gave himself to it,” Barry said. “Our grief is broader than what we feel as individuals because a great loss has been suffered by New Haven.”
Both Barry and Shriver mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, “The Man in the Arena.” Barry said Lee talked about the speech several times, holding it up as an ideal for a politician.
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,” Barry said, quoting Roosevelt. “Who at best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Barry said he thought Lee fulfilled the ideal of the man in the arena.
“He was not in the grandstands,” Barry said. “He was involved.”
Rev. Peter A. Rosazza, auxiliary bishop of Hartford, was the celebrant for the mass. Rosazza praised Lee’s strict Catholicism and said Lee prayed three rosaries a day.
In his eulogy, Shriver praised the mayor’s career but admitted Lee was not universally loved.
“He has been called the most forceful and most faithful mayor of the century,” Shriver said. “And he’s been called a few other names too.”
Shriver joked about Lee’s cunning and charm.
“Dick Lee is the kind of S.O.B. who cuts your arms off at the elbows and you wouldn’t notice until you reached for your coffee,” Shriver said.
Shriver recalled the first time he had met Lee and they had walked to the Quinnipiac Club together. On the way, Shriver said, Lee seemed to know everyone on the streets by name.
Shriver also said that after Lee’s terms as mayor, a poll was taken of New Haven residents.
“A full 50 percent of respondents characterized themselves as knowing him well or as a friend,” Shriver said.
Shriver said Lee would be unconcerned that the city is still struggling to understand his legacy.
“Undoubtedly, he’s thrilled by the fact that we’re still arguing,” Shriver said.
At the end of his remarks, Shriver said one of Lee’s favorite expressions showed his love of the community.
“I don’t have much education, but I have a lot of experience in what is true,” Shriver said, quoting Lee. “I feel that every tear I wipe from the eye of a child becomes a star in the sky.”
Rosazza said he was impressed by the emotion Shriver felt for Lee.
“[The eulogy is] one of the best I’ve ever heard,” Rosazza said.
After the service, Lee was buried at the Grove Street Cemetery. The cemetery holds the graves of several well-known historical figures, including Noah Webster and Eli Whitney.
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