Hundreds of people honored the life and career of prominent Southern Nevada businessman Kenny Lee at a Friday morning vigil in northwest Las Vegas.
Attendees released more than 200 biodegradable balloons into the sky to pay tribute to Lee as friends remembered the 53-year-old for his kindness, philanthropy and business acumen.
“Fabulous guy,” said Mike Kiousis, who knew Lee through the wine and liquor industry. “Treated everyone the same. A wonderful man.”
Lee, who was the chief executive officer of the popular liquor store chain, was killed in a car crash in northern Nevada a week ago. Lee’s death has prompted an outpouring of support for Lee’s family from customers of the stores, community members and political leaders.
Gov. Steve Sisolak told the crowd of approximately200 that gathered for the vigil at the Lee’s Discount Liquor branch at 7291 W. Azure Drive that Lee “loved this state.”
He also noted that the businessman was a prolific supporter of Nevada charities. Sisolak spoke as he stood in front of a photo of Lee inscribed with the words “no greater gift than a generous heart.”
“There is not a charitable event that anyone could ever go to where the Lee family and Lee’s Liquor was not represented,” Sisolak said. “They are one of the most generous, giving, philanthropic families in our entire state. I know that Kenny, his dad, and his family loves each and every one of you.”
Sisolak was later observed hugging Lee’s loved ones. Family members of Lee were grief-stricken and did not speak at the vigil.
‘Someone who cared’
One of the charities Lee supported was Heroes in the Rough, which helps disabled veterans by offering sporting activities and mentorship in the Las Vegas Valley.
“He supported us (through) more than just traditional donations, which he did generously,” said Craig Stoudnor, coordinator of the organization’s golf program. “He also contributed himself. He was at all of our events. It’s a significant loss for all of us. … He was a friend and partner. He was someone who cared.”
Nevada State Police Highway Patrol troopers said Lee’s minivan swerved into oncoming traffic for unknown reasons on U.S. Highway 93 alternate, about 23 miles south of West Wendover and Ely, at 10:14 a.m. on Nov. 19. His van sideswiped a pickup truck, then struck a trailer it was pulling. Lee was not wearing a seat belt and died at the scene, the Highway Patrol said.
Investigators still don’t know what caused Lee’s vehicle to head into the opposing lane. Impairment was not suspected.
Lee’s death came just months after his father, Hae Un Lee, founder of the chain of liquor stores, died of cancer. The Lees were fixtures in the Las Vegas community, appearing together on humorous billboards and in television advertisements.
Kenny Lee was a lifelong Las Vegas resident. His childhood friend, Ruben Gross, knew Kenny since the fifth grade.
“I feel really sad. I know everyone in Las Vegas does,” Gross said, adding, “I miss you Kenny. My mom, family, miss him.”
Gross recalled how he and Kenny would built forts in the desert growing up in Las Vegas.
“When we were kids we would go through the wash, underneath the (Interstate) 15, underneath the Caesars Palace and we’d come out at Imperial Palace in the back,” he said. “I wouldn’t suggest everybody do that but we were kids back then and we were going to do whatever we wanted. Nobody could stop us.”
Kenny Lee was also a huge supporter of the Vegas Golden Knights. Sandra Zalewski met Kenny Lee at a Golden Knights signing event. She later painted a picture of the Golden Knights that she gave to Lee, who hung it on his wall at his office.
A big Golden Knights fan
“He’s done nothing but good things for the community,” she said, adding she didn’t know him well, but at Knights events Lee would approach and say, “‘Hey Sandra how’s it going?’”
She recently won tickets to a Knights game on the lower level of T-Mobile Arena. While attending the game, she noticed Kenny sitting near her.
“Really close to the glass,” she recalled. “I turned, he was sitting right next to me. I was able to say, ‘Kenny I’m so sorry about your dad,’ and he reached over and hugged me really tight.”
The Golden Knights expressed their condolences shortly after the crash.
“The Vegas Golden Knights lost a friend and supporter from our beginnings with the tragic passing of Kenny Lee,” the team said. “Kenny was not just a team partner but also a generous philanthropic supporter of the Vegas Golden Knights Foundation.”
Mary Beth Sewald, president and chief executive officer of the Vegas Chamber, said the Lees were great employers who helped the community through philanthropic work.
“I think their legacy really is one to be honored,” she said. “It’s just such a loss in our community, so we want to express our condolences, of course, to the family. It’s just tragic.”