LIMA — On the final day of 2002, as the world prepared to greet the new year, Alberta Lee brought down the gavel on her years as an elected official in Allen County.
On the first day of 2003, for the first time since she was elected to the Lima City Board of Education in 1971, Lee did not hold an elected office in Allen County.
“Usually reserved, Lee couldn’t stop her voice from wavering when she thanked her friends and family and spoke with pride about her native county,” the News wrote as Lee chaired her final meeting as president of the Allen County Commissioners.
“What’s admirable about Alberta is her sincere service to this community,” then-commissioner Bob Cupp told the News. “It’s never been about her own advancement and it’s never been about playing politics. You’re straightforward and honest, and that’s the hallmark of a truly outstanding person.”
Despite her long involvement in local government, Lee, the only woman ever elected a county commissioner, always shied away from calling herself a politician. A politician, Lee explained in a News article in August 1989, is a person who “gets elected for prestige, money …” Being an elected official, she said, does not change who she is, adding, “I’m still my own self selling my services to the community.” By her own estimate, Lee was up for election for a variety of positions more than 20 times over her three decades of public service. She seldom lost.
Lee was born in Lima on May 17, 1933, the daughter of Ralph and Mary Vermillion. She was graduated from Lafayette-Jackson High School in 1951 and married Richard F. Lee, who died in August 1992. The couple had one son, Brett Lee. She then married Don Sadler in 1995, and he died in June 2019.
Lee worked at Sioux Honey in Lima from 1951 to 1956, the year she became a licensed real estate saleswoman, working for Clabaugh Realty. She eventually became a licensed real estate broker and opened Alberta Lee Realty.
In 1969, “with her son a little older and in school, Alberta Lee thought she might like to run for the school board,” the News wrote Dec. 30, 2002. “She lost that first race by 100 votes, but it whetted an appetite for public service.” Two years later, Lee was elected to the school board. She would be re-elected several more times and serve a total of 19 years on the board, more than half the time as board president.
In 1980, after nearly a decade on the city school board, Lee, a Republican, decided to run for Allen County Recorder in what, she told the News in 1989, was an “eleventh hour” decision. “I thought this is a natural if I ever want to get into politics,” she said. “With her background in real estate, she had a good understanding of the office,” the News wrote Aug. 20, 1989.
Lee would serve on the school board and as county recorder simultaneously for another decade, a situation Ohio’s attorney general decided did not represent a conflict of interest. On Jan. 2, 1981, Allen County’s new recorder was re-elected to a fifth term as president of the Lima city school board at its organizational meeting.
In January 1990 the News reported that Lee would “throw her hat into the ring for the Republican nomination for county commissioner” after longtime Republican commissioner Robert L. Townsend announced he would not seek a sixth term. “She was first elected county recorder on Jan. 1, 1981. She also has served on the Lima school board for 19 years, 11 years as president,” the News wrote Jan. 24, 1989.
Lee swept through the primary and general elections. On Nov. 20, 1990, she told the News she would resign as Allen County Recorder and member of the Lima school board on Dec. 31, 1990. Lee explained that the recorder’s office “has a large workload at the end of the year and she didn’t want to leave it to her staff or a new recorder,” the News reported.
“Alberta Lee took the oath of office Thursday to become Allen County’s first female commissioner. Lee was sworn in by Mary Jane Clabaugh, a notary public who gave Lee her first job as a Realtor in 1956,” the News wrote Dec. 28, 1990.
“Being the first woman, I want to do a good job, but I’d say that no matter what job I had,” she said. “I have been the first one before in other jobs and I have always tried to handle it with dignity and with a business attitude.”
After winning the primary for Republican commissioner candidate in 2002, Lee decided it was time to walk away and withdrew her name from the November general election ballot. The job, she told the News on Dec. 30, 2002, the day before her final meeting, had always been fun, interesting and positive, but this time it felt different. “I was just back from three days of vacation where I saw a lot of people having a lot of fun. And I just thought, ‘This isn’t what it used to be,’” she said, adding, “I know I’ll get to more ball games, instead of worrying whether or not they’re the same night as a ditch hearing.”
Although she no longer attends ditch hearings, Lee has stayed busy with volunteer work, a future she predicted for herself in early December 2002 when she received the Athena Award from the Lima/Allen County Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes individuals who achieve excellence in business, served the community in a meaningful way and have assisted women in reaching their full potential.
Among her accomplishments, Lee has been president of the both the Ohio recorders’ association and the commissioners’ association, been a member of the Business and Professional Women’s Club and contributed to establishing the Lima/Allen County Council on Community Affairs. She has been a member of the Soroptimist Club, the League of Women Voters and served on the YWCA board of directors.
Lee has given money as well as time to her community. In October 2019, she donated $50,000 toward the construction of the Rotary Club’s downtown amphitheater. She also annually donates the prize money received by the winners of the Jefferson Award for community service.
She recently also made a return to the world of county elections. In January, she was named campaign chair and adviser for Beth Seibert, who is one of five Republicans seeking the nomination for county commissioner. A second woman, Judy Augsburger, also is running.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.