Shirley G. Lee worked to advance Baha’i principles in greater society, serving during the 1980s and 1990s as a national public information officer and later as a representative of the Faith in the United Nations.
She passed away July 13, 2012, at age 89 after having lived several years in The Villages, Florida.
In a letter of tribute, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States wrote, “The world has lost an energetic and enthusiastic advocate for international harmony and agreement, for human rights, and — above all — for the advancement of the unifying teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.”
Born in Chicago in 1922, Shirley was brought up in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1942 when her husband was drafted to serve in World War II, she enlisted in the Navy and served as a radio operator and a communications trainer. After the war she earned a degree in public administration at Washington University.
In her 28-year marriage to Ralph Lee she brought up a family that included six children. While doing that, in the 1950s she volunteered as chief of training serving five states for Civil Defense and in the 1960s as a first aid instructor with the Red Cross. In 1964 she went to work as a buyer for an employee motivation company.
She was the first woman elected to the Lindbergh School District in suburban St. Louis, and served on the board for 10 years. She also applied her plentiful energy and zeal to improve the world’s conditions in volunteer work to support the equality of women and men.
During her lifetime a number of family members investigated and accepted the Baha’i Faith; her mother, Jane Gardner, moved to Alaska in the 1960s to work for growth and development of that state’s Baha’i communities. By her own account, Shirley was the 11th Baha’i in her extended family when she accepted the Faith in 1978 at age 55.
Soon she was participating with the local Baha’i community in a number of capacities, including as chair of the Baha’i Metro Media Council that served the entire area. In service to the Faith she brought to bear her skills in giving presentations at training events and conferences, including at Baha’i schools.
When she joined the Baha’i National Center staff in Evanston, Illinois, in 1981 as assistant director of the National Assembly’s Office of Public Affairs, Shirley assisted in two important lines of effort. One was to build relationships with government and media in support of the Baha’i community of Iran, which was experiencing often-deadly persecutions in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. A second was to accompany Baha’is in many metro areas and localities nationwide in forming their own relationships with local mass media.
She became director of the office in 1984, and by the time she retired in 1986 about 1,000 Baha’i communities were participating in the nationwide Baha’i public information network, many of them through inter-community agencies such as she had helped build in Missouri.
During those years she made a personal trip to several southern African countries in support of Baha’i communities there.
In 1988 the National Spiritual Assembly brought her back into service, this time as its representative in the United Nations. In a little over five years in that New York office, Shirley not only actively worked to increase the influence of Baha’i principles of justice and spirituality within the UN community, but also promoted Baha’is’ involvement in efforts to uphold global awareness, peace building and literacy.
For two years she was chair of the Conference of UN Representatives for the United Nations Association of the USA. She also worked with environmental efforts and — as a member of the National Assembly’s Committee on Women — worked with the National Council of Women on projects to promote equal opportunity. Her work brought her in contact with a variety of activists, government figures, and celebrities.
A family eulogy indicates she was just as energetic and purposeful in that work as ever, even in her late 60s. It describes a routine of arising at 5:30 a.m. at her home in New Canaan, Connecticut, to commute to New York and getting home after dark every day.
As a member of the Media Task Force for the Second Baha’i World Congress in 1992 in New York City, Shirley not only helped plan U.S. efforts to publicize the conference but also traveled to two other continents to advise numerous National Spiritual Assemblies on their media efforts, as well as encouraging attendance at the Congress.
After retiring from the post at the UN in 1993, she returned to Missouri for some years before moving to Florida.
Shirley Lee’s survivors include four daughters, Laurie Chuchian, Melody McCulley, Jenny Heldrich and Kathy Lee; two sons, Scott Lee and David Lee; two sisters, Barbara James and Olyve Jenab; 11 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.