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William States Lee III (1929 – 1996)

William States “Bill” Lee III, a native of Charlotte, N.C., and grandson of Duke Power’s first chief engineer, was a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University with a degree in civil engineering. After serving in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineering Corp, Lee joined Duke Power’s engineering department in 1955 as a junior engineer. He was named engineering vice president in 1965, engineering and construction senior vice president in 1971 and executive vice president in 1976. He became president and chief operating officer of Duke Power Company in 1978 and chairman and chief executive officer in 1982.

As the leader of Duke Power, Bill Lee never forgot the mission of the utility was to serve the best interests of the customers and community, and he worked tirelessly to ensure the safe, reliable and cost-effective generation of electricity. While Lee credited employees with the company’s success, he was respected for his work ethic and dedication to the company and important community initiatives.

Even though Lee initially may not have intended to spend his entire career at Duke Power, he found the work both challenging and exciting, in particular the company’s work on new generation technology – nuclear power. From the company’s cooperative work on the Parr Nuclear Station (with Carolina Power and Light Company, Virginia Electric and Power Company, and South Carolina Electric and Gas Company) to the design, construction and operation of Oconee, McGuire and Catawba nuclear stations, Lee quickly became a nuclear energy expert and an industry leader in articulating the advantages of commercial nuclear generation. He also realized the foremost consideration in this commitment to nuclear power electric generation was safety. And this meant a focus on safety from the initial planning process through the operating life of each nuclear station.

Following the 1979 Three Mile Island emergency, Lee and a group of hand-picked Duke Power employees went to the Pennsylvania plant to join a team of experts in resolving the incident and easing public concerns. Lee then led a national movement to bring together all nuclear operators in a cooperative organization that would share best practices and establish worldwide nuclear safety standards. In 1979, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) was formed and Lee served as its chairman from 1979 to 1982.  Lee was also the catalyst in expanding this new organization to a worldwide level. The World Association of Nuclear Operators was founded in 1989, and Lee served as its president until 1991.

In his community service, Lee went far beyond the issues directly tied to Duke Power. He was the champion of numerous causes, including the Boy Scouts, performing arts and environmental stewardship. He served on the boards of some of the nation’s largest corporations and institutions. Perhaps his greatest commitment was to education, supporting everything from preschool programs for underprivileged children to building top engineering programs at UNC Charlotte.

Lee was committed to establishing and expanding excellence at UNC Charlotte’s College of Engineering. He led efforts to develop strategic plans, create a vision and mission and establish measures of success. His commitment led to the UNC Charlotte Board of Trustees naming the College of Engineering The William States Lee College of Engineering (in 1994).

Lee established the Power in Education Program at Duke Power, which gave employees paid time to volunteer in community schools. For his efforts, Lee was honored by presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Bill Lee was a visionary, an environmentalist, a builder of dreams. He won numerous honors for his efforts, including:

  • Nation’s Outstanding Engineer by the Society of Professional Engineers in 1980.
  • Utility CEO of the Year (four times) by Financial World.
  • Utility CEO of the decade by Financial World.
  • Charlotte World Affairs Council’s World Citizen Award in 1991.
  • Honorary doctorate by UNC Charlotte in 1994.
  • Humanitarian Award (National Conference of Christians and Jews).
  • North Carolina Award (for fostering international use and control of nuclear energy).

Lee retired from Duke Power in 1994. However, he continued to work diligently for the people of the Carolinas, including the day before his sudden death in 1996 as he addressed the North Carolina State Legislature as chairman of Governor Hunt’s N.C. Economic Development Committee. Bill Lee made a difference not only for Duke Power, but for people in his “community.”