In 1967 NPS Director George Hartzog characterized Ronald F. Lee as “the sage of historic preservation.” A graduate from the University of Minnesota, Lee (1905-1972) joined the agency in 1933 as a “historical foreman” for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Tennessee, but soon moved to Washington DC to work on the development of the Natchez Trace Parkway. He served as the Chief Historian for nine years, Chief of Interpretation for seven years, and beginning in 1960 as the Northeast Regional Director for six years. Towards the end of his career Lee published a history of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and a description of the Park Service’s legislative “family tree.”
The principle historian of the historic preservation movement, Charles Homer, unequivocally stated that for a dozen years before 1950 “Ronald Lee was the central figure in the preservation movement.” As one of the fathers of the National Trust, he was the “quintessence of tact and diplomacy” in dealing with the “great, or influential, or the rich.” Lee had a “constructive mind” and a “considerable vision” regarding the role of historic properties within the National Parks. Lee was considered the “mainspring” of the NPS history program. He was, said e NPS Historian Thomas Pitkin, “no great speaker and not at all aggressive in ordinary manner, but he had a earnestness, a warmth, a honesty of purpose, a persistence, and a fertility of ideas that made him the top figure” in historic preservation. Among other accomplishments, Lee was instrumental in the creation of: National Historic Landmarks, as a new type of federal historic recognition; Hampton National Historic Site, the first unit recognized for its architectural significance; and, Piscataway National Park, which preserves the viewshed from George Washington’s Mount Vernon.