One of the longest-serving members of the Georgia General Assembly, with forty-two consecutive years in the House of Representatives, Bill Lee wielded considerable power as chairman of the House Rules Committee and helped bring a new college to Clayton County.
William J. Lee was born on December 15, 1925, in Forest Park, in Clayton County, to Velma Haynie and Colie Rufus Lee. After graduating from high school in 1942, he earned a law degree from Atlanta Law School in 1960. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946. In 1949 he married Mary Mathews, and they have two children, Rex and Trixie.
A lifelong employee of Southern Railway and its successor corporation, Norfolk Southern, Lee was first elected to the house in 1956 from a Clayton County district and was subsequently reelected twenty times over the next four decades, earning him the nickname “Dean of the House.” His forty-two consecutive years in office are believed to be the record for uninterrupted membership in the Georgia House of Representatives, surpassing the prior record of forty years set by Representative J. Roy McCracken. Lee’s record of continuous service as a house member was later matched by Representative Tom Murphy, the longtime house Speaker who represented a Haralson County district from 1961 to 2003.
In 1965 the Board of Regents authorized the establishment of three new junior colleges, including one for the area south of Atlanta. Lee and state senator Terrell Starr helped persuade the regents to choose their home county as the site for Clayton Junior College, which opened in 1969 in Morrow. The school later attained four-year status and is today known as Clayton State University.
Lee, a close friend and confidant of Murphy’s, worked his way up through the house seniority system until Murphy appointed him chairman of the Rules Committee, the powerful committee that sets the calendar for each day’s legislative session and determines whether a bill will make it to the floor for a vote—or quietly kills legislation by keeping it off the calendar. Lee also served as chairman of the house Democratic caucus.
Sporting a distinctive mane of silver hair, the wise-cracking Lee was a frequent source of humor for newspaper reporters, lobbyists, and other lawmakers as he presided over the daily meetings of the Rules Committee. “I always thought that if people laughed at themselves, or laughed and relaxed, they’d do a better job,” he said. “I always have taken my responsibilities very seriously, but along the way we have joked and kidded.”
Lee decided not to run for another term in 1998. Even though he was no longer a member of the house, Lee continued to play a key role at the capitol for the next four years as an aide to Speaker Murphy. The job ended when Murphy was defeated in the 2002 election, and Lee retired from a long career with the legislature.