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Meet May Lee, California’s Longest-Serving Public Servant

Public Service Recognition Week: May 3-9, 2020

CalPERS Celebrates Public Service Recognition Week

Whether it’s for the fulfilling work experience or the inspiration of helping others, the reasons why people choose a career in public service are as diverse as the individuals who do the work.

No matter the reason, their impact centers on one common theme: community. Having a positive impact on people’s lives in their communities fuels the work ethic of many public servants. And they do so with little fanfare or recognition.

During Public Service Recognition Week, it’s time to shine the spotlight on some of those individuals who serve as federal, state, county, or local government employees. This is the first post in our series for Public Service Recognition Week.

May Lee, Facility Management Division, Department of General Services

Nearing her 100th birthday, May Lee is the beacon of longevity. Currently a retired annuitant and volunteer at the California Department of General Services (DGS), Lee’s public service tenure stretches nearly eight decades.

“I’ve been working for the state since 1945, which makes it 77 years,” Lee began. “I started public service way, way back when I was in high school. When I was a senior in high school, I worked in the principal’s office. I kept their ADA, which is the average attendance record for them.”

That started her keen record-keeping abilities as she kept track of all the different ranches her father owned (seven in total).

“I learned to run the abacus and add expenses and keep track of the income,” Lee said.

In September of 1963, she joined DGS and has become a staple of the organization.

“Through the years, I did all the accounting system for General Services,” Lee said. “One of the things I’m proud of is I’m able to figure out how to get out of the red and into the black on funding. Such as the Architecture Revolving Fund, which was $27 million in the hole. Even the auditor gave up, so I decided to take a shot at it, and I figured out what’s wrong. And five and a half years, we pulled it out. We are in the black now.”

Lee’s dedication to California extends to matters of justice. In 1945, Lee petitioned the state senate to abolish Article 19, which excluded Asian Americans from public service. The senate repealed Article 19 from the state constitution in 1955.

Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom recognized Lee’s contributions (PDF) to her community. Lee is the oldest California state worker, at the time of this writing.

#WeServeCA

CalPERS is proud to feature the people who serve the state of California in this special series, We Serve CA. If you have a great story to tell about what public service means to you and how you serve the state of California, please share it with us on our Facebook page, or by using the hashtag #WeServeCA on Twitter. We’d love to hear from you!