Howard Nathaniel Lee, born July 28, 1934, grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in Lithonia, Georgia. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1953. He attended Fort Valley State College in Georgia where he received a BA degree in Sociology in 1959. In August 1959, he was drafted and served two years in the United States Army, spending more than one year in Korea. After being honorably discharged from active duty in 1961, he worked three years as a Juvenile Probation Officer in Savannah, Georgia. In 1964, he enrolled in the graduate School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina and received his Master’s Degree in 1966.
In 1969, Lee was elected and served three terms (1975) as Mayor of Chapel Hill. In 1976, he was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, but lost in a bitter and contentious second primary run-off election. In 1977- 1981, he served as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, a cabinet-level position in Governor Jim Hunt’s Administration. Among his numerous achievements, he initiated a “Mountains to the Sea Hiking Trail,” which stretches from the North Carolina Mountains to the coast. From 1966-1975, Lee served as an administrator at Duke University and on the faculty at North Carolina Central University. From 1982-1991, he was a member of the School of Social Work faculty at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has lectured at numerous universities throughout the South and Nation.
In 1990, Lee was elected to the North Carolina Senate where he served for 13 years. During his tenure, he held several powerful committee chairmanships; presiding over education, transportation and Appropriations Committees. In the North Carolina Senate, Lee built his reputation as a fighter for education reform. He fought for higher teacher salaries, increased funding for public and higher education and advocated for raising teacher and student standards. In addition, he sponsored or co-sponsored several major pieces of educational legislation, which included Smart Start, More at Four (a pre-kindergarten program), the Excellent Schools Act for school reform, and the Safe Schools Act.
From 2003-2009, Lee was elected to the position as Chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education and a member of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. From March 2009- September 2011, Lee served as the first Executive Director of the North Carolina Education Cabinet having been appointed by Governor Beverly Eaves Perdue.