Ada Lee never misses an Oregon game.
This fall, when a great-grandniece arrives at the UO as a freshman, Eugene’s Ada O.L. Lee will become matriarch to four generations of Ducks.
In Chinese, the part of her name that starts with O means “love” and the L means “orchid.”
However, for hundreds of UO alumni living all over the world, the O could also stand for “Oregon” and “opportunity.” Like her six children, several grandchildren, and a host of nieces and nephews, these “Ada alumni” are working as doctors, lawyers, educators, scientists, bankers, business leaders, and missionaries all over the globe.
Whether they come to her from across town or from across the ocean, Ada hires students for part-time jobs and immerses interns in the world of business. She also provides “a little bit of home” for a steady stream of international students drawn to Eugene by her admiration for the university.
Helping others matters more than anything to Ada, whose amazing life story shows how one act of kindness builds on the next in wonderful ways that ripple out beyond our ability to foresee.
A sought-after business consultant, she is president of Eugene-based B&A International Inc. At 83, she continues to take on several college interns each year, proudly attending each one’s graduation.
“They help me as much as I help them,” she said. “They make me young. They need to hear that if you really work hard and do the right thing, and think what you can do for others, your life will be happy.”
An amazing life story
Growing up in Hong Kong during World War II, Ada knew a big world was waiting out there because her parents had emigrated from Trinidad and Australia. She also knew the gnawing ache of an empty belly, so malnourished that she developed beriberi. She felt terror when robbers tied up her mother in the night and threatened to burn down the house unless given what little was left of value.
Yet, even when telling about hard times, Ada’s innate optimism shines through. She lights up at the memory of a Christmas Eve when she helped husk a portion of rice, grain by grain, alongside her parents, grandmother, and two siblings. They cooked it into a thin congee soup made special with a whisper of precious salt and a few leaves from a sweet potato that her older sister managed to grow.
Ada and Bill Lee in front of their first
restaurant, Chinese Palace, in the early
Meanwhile, Ada’s future husband Bill was growing up under similar conditions in Manchuria. Both emerged from wartime deprivation with strong faith, a tremendous work ethic, open hearts, and a talent for making connections that has greatly benefited the UO and their adopted community, Eugene.
Ada still marvels at the kindness and generosity of strangers during key points in their incredible journey from different parts of Asia to Eugene, from missionaries who helped her go to bible college in Canada to the president of Northwest Christian College, without whom she is certain she could never have obtained the visa that allowed her to move to Oregon and marry Bill.
“So many people helped us all along the way,” Ada said. “That’s why we’ve always had students working in our businesses.”
Above all, she is forever grateful for a stunning gift from a person she’s never met—a gift that helped put her in the position to help so many others.
Paid in full
Soon after their wedding, Ada and Bill settled in Eugene and took on a five-year lease for a tiny Chinese restaurant near downtown. One day, as they struggled to make the rent, the banker who held their lease came in demanding that they sign a document on the spot. They feared it was a balloon payment.
“Just sign it,” Ada remembers him saying impatiently. Worried, they complied. Only then did he reveal that it was their contract, “paid in full” by a woman who had eaten at their restaurant and admired how hard they worked.
As a result, Ada considers Eugene the wellspring for all that she and Bill achieved. They were enjoying their six children and great success with their landmark restaurant, Asia Garden, when liver cancer cut Bill’s life short at 54 in 1977.
“The Lord and the community supported me and got me through,” she said. “We never could have made it otherwise.”
Paying it forward
Ada gives back in many ways, from founding two orphanages in Beijing to launching the local Asia Celebration, an annual two-day extravaganza featuring the food and cultures of fourteen countries.
At the UO, Ada’s many volunteer efforts over the years include her current involvement on the advisory board for the Confucius Institute and her commitment to helping guide the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s remarkable growth.
As you might expect, the Ducks in Ada’s orbit follow suit when it comes to their alma mater. Among many noteworthy examples is nephew Anthony "Tony" S. O. Wong ’76, a retired director of Woo, Chow, Wong & Partners, an award-winning architectural firm in Asia. A generous supporter of the UO’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, he currently serves as one of the UO Foundation’s first international trustees.
Through everything, Ada stays in touch with her mentees and offers her undivided attention to one student after the next. She says it all comes back to her favorite Chinese proverb, “When you drink a glass of water, remember the source.”
Her impact is best described by youngest daughter Jean, who earned her master’s degree from the UO and is now a scientist at Oregon Research Institute.
“Each of these kids is like a single drop of water. Together, they’ve become like a waterfall,” Jean said. “She shows them through her own actions how to become the person you aspire to be.”
By Melody Ward Leslie '79