By Randall Yip
I was saddened to open the paper this morning to learn that Herb Lee had died at the age of 84 from colon cancer.
He was not a household name.
I’ve had very little social interaction with him over the years.
Yet I couldn’t help but think back to an incident in my youth when he was there to have my back and the back of other impressionable youth.
Herb Patrick Lee was the first Chinese American police officer in the city of San Francisco.
In those days, a discriminatory height requirement prevented many Asian Americans from joining the force. That requirement was eventually eliminated following protest for change by such groups as Chinese for Affirmative Action.
He joined the force in 1957. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Lee worked undercover in his early years, reaching out to youth to steer them away from gangs.
He later became Executive Director of the Police Athletic League where he continued to work with troubled youth.
I was a student at St. Mary’s in Chinatown at the time. I was the shortest in my class and tended to stay under the radar.
One day a group of gang kids came into our school yard while we were playing a pick up game of basketball.
It was obvious we were about to be in trouble, but we kept our heads down pretending we didn’t notice the group.
Most of the kids in the gang were pretty big, but there was one who was much shorter than the others.
That kid then picked out the biggest kid in our group, approached him and began punching him in the stomach.
All of us stood and watched and the kid being pummeled took it without resistance.
Word got to Herb about what happened and the next day he marched a big group of us St. Mary’s kids over to the PAL.
Herb announced our presence in front of everyone and made it clear he was not happy about what had happened.
He then asked us to point out the kids who had harassed us just the day before. One by one we pointed, singling out the hoodlums.
Herb made it clear to each of them we were not to be touched, that he didn’t want any more trouble from any of them.
The message was clear-leave the St. Mary’s kids alone.
Years later, I thought about what I did and wondered what gave me the guts to publicly call out the gang kids.
I could have easily have been their next target of retaliation.
It didn’t happen. None of us, as far as I know, were ever bothered again.
It was Herb that gave us the guts to stand up to the gang.
Here’s the greatest part of the story. The kid in our group that was pummeled-he went on to become a police officer in San Francisco.
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