Darr Angel remembered the first time he met Bill Lee.
The longtime Lea County rancher was around 10 or 12 years old when he met Lee who was dressed in a white pressed shirt, starch jeans, a clean hat and a nice looking vehicle.
“He looked like how a rancher was supposed to look,” Angel said. “At the time my dad was working for wages on a ranch and I decided that I wanted to be like someone like Mr. Lee.”
Decades later Angel became friends with that man in a white, pressed shirt. And through those years he and Lee would operate their ranches with honor.
Lee used his honor as a tool to help improve New Mexico and Lea County through his time as a New Mexico State Senator and a member of the state’s highway commission.
“Bill Lee is one of the most honorable men I have ever known,” Angel said.
Lee, who became known as one of Lea County’s top ranchers and a two-term state senator, passed away Jan. 26 at the age of 87. A graveside service was Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the Lovington Cemetery.
The road to becoming one of the most honorable and respected men in Santa Fe during his tenure as a state senator started for Bill Lee when he was a youth growing up in the ranching world of Lea County.
As second cousins, former Lea County rancher Crawford Culp said he and Lee grew up in the same ranching circles, but didn’t spend a lot of time together. Although they attended school together, Culp said he had his group of friends and Lee had his own group of friends. However, Culp said Lee was the kind of person to do his best, no matter the activity.
“Everything Bill did he excelled at,” Culp said. “Whatever he set out to do, he did the best. He was good at school and a pretty good athlete.”
Ranching was a way of life for Lee and Culp’s family. Lee grew up on a ranch near Buckeye and Culp said he grew up on a ranch between Roswell and Tatum.
“Some of his kinfolk had ranches in between,” Culp said, “so we saw each other and as we grew up, we neighbored with each other.”
Both learned a simple way of life. Your handshake was your name and your name meant everything. You helped people when you could and never took to grandstanding when you did something good. Culp said he and Lee saw more of each other in the fall time when the weather was cooler. That’s because in the summer, there was work to be done.
“Bill did a lot of things for a lot of people that no one even knew about and he did more than anyone to know about,” Culp said. “He was a Christian man and he donated money to several churches. When he was in the legislature, he was on a lot of committees that helped a lot of people. But he never wanted the credit for helping those people. Bill never bragged about the good things he did and he didn’t want people bragging about what he did.”
As a state senator, Lee served on the Legislature’s finance committee and sponsored several tax-relief bills. He is mostly known for introducing and passing legislations that created the Petroleum Recovery Center at New Mexico Tech University. He passed legislation allowing municipalities to receive gross receipt tax money that counties were receiving at that time. That allowed Lovington to start receiving GRT income on a nearby refinery plant, which helped with the city’s growth.
Then there was the Loving-ton Hospital District. Called one of his proudest accomplishments, Lee worked to establish the Hospital District Act that allowed municipalities to create a district to generate tax revenue from property taxes which was used to build and support a local hospital. In Lovington that eventually led to the creation of Nor-Lea Hospital.
Lee also served on the state’s highway commission, meaning Lea County had some of the best highways in New Mexico. Well, there was one exception.
“He didn’t even fix his own road,” Angel said. “That road he had on the Caprock going to his ranch is so rough that you could hardly drive down it. Him and I use to laugh all the time about how he was on the highway commission all that time, but not fix your own road? He said, ‘well that’s just not what I do.’”
Angel said he and Lee had one commonality. They both know the right way to run a ranch. To have good cattle and horses and to take care of the livestock and the ranch.
“There are a million ways to operate a ranch, but there is only one way to operate a business, no matter what the business is,” Angel said, “and that’s the right way. Bill and I shared that and we talked about that a lot.”
Lee’s handshake wasn’t too shabby either. Merch Merchant remembered the first time he met Bill Lee. It was after Lee’s time in the state Legislature when Merchant, who had an oil and gas background, came to Lee to talk about a partially completed oil well on the ranch. Merchant said he, Bill Lee and Lee’s parents sat at their dinner table and scratched out a plan to get the well working. While the logistics of the paperwork and legalities would come later, that plan was solidified with a handshake.
“Bill had an extremely firm handshake,” Merchant chuckled. “He hurt my hand the first time I shook it.”
That next day Merchant showed up with the needed paperwork. Merchant said he kept his word to Lee and thus began a working relationship that grew to a family-like bond during the next 40-plus years.
“I wish God would make more people like Bill Lee,” Merchant said. “He did not have greed and his word was his bond. That is like my father, my word is the only thing I can give and live with, and Bill was like that.”
Merchant’s wife, Joy Buhalts, remembered Lee’s humility. While Lee served as board chairman of the former Moncor Bank in Hobbs, Buhalts was a bank employee.
“While the other board members would enter the bank and go straight to the board room, Bill always took the time to visit a bit with the employees,” Buhalts said. “He would talk with them and know them by name. Bill was so down to earth with everyone.”
That’s because the people of Lea County mattered to Bill Lee. The only people who matter more was his family.
“I have known him for 41 years and Bill was always for the other guy,” Merchant said. “He never cheated. He never lied. He was fair. More than fair.”
Not bad for a man with whose first impression was on how he presented himself. An impression that defined him to family and friends like Culp and Merchant. And a first impression that helped Angel shape his life. A story that came full circle decades later.
Angel muses about a phone call he had with Lee’s wife, Pat, during the height of their friendship. Pat Lee called Angel wanting to know who tailored Angel’s nice shirts. It was the same tailor Angel used for 40 years. The tailor met with Angel twice a year, took measurements and performed fittings. Pat Lee wanted his name to buy the same shirts for Bill.
“So thought that was pretty funny,” Angel said. “When I was a kid I thought Mr. Lee looked really cool and finally Pat wanted to buy his shirts from my shirt maker. Bill always made it a point to look like how a rancher should look.”