Wilson’s David Lee earns state’s top parks, recreation honor

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When David Lee recently heard the biography — including being a 1992 graduate of N.C. State University — for this year’s recipient of the N.C. Recreation and Park Association’s highest award, he chuckled and looked forward to seeing an old classmate honored.

As the bio continued being read, though, it dawned on him that after years in the field, he was about to receive the Fellow Award.

“I’ve watched for 25 years different folks receive that award who I thought were the top professionals in our field. I remember when my dad won it years ago and what a big deal it was,” said Lee. “To actually receive the Fellow Award myself was quite a thrill. I really couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t see it coming, but apparently everybody else knew it on our staff and my family knew it.”

During the Oct. 26 award banquet in Winston-Salem, Lee was surrounded by colleagues from Wilson and other communities as well as his stepmom Loretta and his father, Boyd Lee, who served as parks and recreation director in Greenville before retiring 12 years ago. Lee said he recalled trying to steady himself to walk on stage after realizing he was receiving the honor.

“My eyes were tuning up,” he said with a laugh. “I just blew right past my dad as I was walking up. I just thought, ‘I can’t look at you right now, Pops.’ He was thrilled, but he couldn’t hardly look at me either because it was emotional for us both.

“That was one of the highlights — probably the highlight — of my career.”

Before becoming director in 2005, Lee rose through the ranks in Wilson Parks and Recreation. The former president of the N.C. Recreation and Parks Association also worked within the field in Hendersonville and Kinston, but he said seeing projects like the Gillette Athletic Complex, the all children’s playground and the former Cavalier Park take shape has been the best part of his job.

“I’m really proud of the effect we’ve had on Wilson’s economy and tourism with the sports tournaments we’ve held here,” Lee said. “You can literally see the affect on businesses and other areas in Wilson when those tournaments are here.”

While Lee’s name was on the award, he said the honor really goes to the entire city parks and rec department.

“Obviously, this was a great honor, but honestly I was just the one up there accepting the award. When you get an award like that, there are lots of people that should get credit,” he said. “Our great staff, Wilson’s great leadership with the mayor and council, and the support of our community are all a part of an award like this.”

Deputy City Manager Harry Tyson said he was thrilled to see Lee recognized for his tireless work to improve the quality of life for Wilson residents.

“It’s a tremendous honor for David to earn statewide recognition at this level,” Tyson said. “David’s leadership over the years has built a strong recreation program to serve Wilson residents. We are fortunate to have an excellent team dedicated to maintaining the city of Wilson as a national leader in parks and recreation.”

Lee said he’s excited for many more projects and programs to come to fruition, noting earning the award doesn’t mean he plans to retire anytime soon.

“I’m just glad our department is getting the recognition it deserves and hopefully, there are more great things ahead,” Lee concluded.