WESTWEGO, La. – Hundreds lined Friday morning at a Jefferson Parish community center for the beginning of a daylong funeral for longtime Jefferson Parish Harry Lee, the popular Chinese-American sheriff who died Monday after a monthslong battle with leukemia.
Politicians and at least one celebrity stopped to pay their respects and praise the colorful and controversial Lee. "He was my best friend, like a father," actor Steven Seagal said, adding that he'd spoken with Lee in the weeks leading to his death, including the day before. "He was doing great, felt great. I don't know what happened."
At the Alario Center in suburban New Orleans, mourners were greeted by a huge papier-mache likeness of Lee in his trademark cowboy hat and dozens of signs with Lee's picture and the slogan "A True American Hero." Jumbo screens silently played news clips marking Lee's passing, jazz music played over speakers and pictures of Lee with celebrities such as John Goodman and Willie Nelson, even former President Bill Clinton, were prominently displayed.
Andy Wilkinson, 60, a Gretna insurance agent, paid homage to his longtime friend by wearing a gray cowboy hat signed by Lee.
"He wasn't politically correct at a time when elected officials feel they have to be. He told the truth. He was a man of his word. You didn't always have to like his word, but you had to respect him," Wilkinson said.
Shien Yen, 25, an administrative assistant and native of Taiwan, took an early lunch break to pay her respects. She brought a bouquet of flowers. Lee, she said, was a source of pride for Chinese Americans, but she said his popularity and level of respect transcended his race.
"I think he spoke what was on his mind. He was very real. He didn't weave around anything."
Five hours were set aside for people to view Lee's body, in a flag-draped coffin cordoned off by velvet ropes.
Then, a motorcade will carry his body to a memorial service and burial at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home & Cemetery. He will be honored with a full honor service including a 21-gun salute. Officials expect the funeral to be one of the largest in the parish's history.
Lee was a larger-than-life figure in Louisiana politics and built a formidable political machine over seven terms in office.
Lee is considered one of the last of Louisiana's colorful populist politicians. His friends ranged from musicians like Nelson to numerous public officials, including Clinton and now-jailed former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.
His tough, no-nonsense approach to a growing crime problem in Jefferson Parish earned him the respect of many residents, but also created friction with the black community, which charged him with using racist tactics.
Earlier this year, as violent crime soared in one predominantly black Jefferson community, Lee sent deputies onto the streets with armored vehicles, vowing to stop the violence. He drew criticism from some black leaders, but others said he was doing his job to control a growing problem.
Lee died of complications from acute myeloid leukemia. He was 75.
Friday's service is set to feature several speakers, including Lee's daughter, Cynthia Sheng; Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard; and Newell Normand, Lee's chief deputy who is now the acting sheriff. Also, there will be the reading of a letter from Edwards.
Even in a state with a long history of brash and colorful politicians — fiery orators like Huey and Earl Long, country singer Jimmie Davis, the dapper Edwards — Lee cut an uncommon figure: a rotund, white-haired Chinese American with a penchant for western wear and a love of country music.
Lee had announced in April that he was battling leukemia. Although he reported in June that it was in remission, it returned in August. Even so, Lee signed up to run for re-election as sheriff of Jefferson Parish in the Oct. 20 election.