For years, Ann Simpson Lee has been the behind-the-scenes person for many community events in Lanier County. Someone else might be in charge, but Lee is the one who sees that things get done.
So says Wendy Moore, who has known Lee as a friend for nearly 40 years.
“When a huge community event is being planned (like our annual Deerfest) and you have a question, the response is always, ‘Call Ann.’ She is the driving force, the ‘go-to’ person, yet the calming factor when things get in a tight. If Ann is ever in ‘panic’ mode, you never know it,” Moore said.
Moore also has firsthand knowledge of Lee through her community involvement. Moore is a member of the local chamber of commerce board of directors, and has also been the coordinator of the Leadership Lanier program since its inception (2002).
“I have often relied on Ann’s help with chamber and leadership functions, and she has never said no,” Moore said.
Lee was recognized for her community service when the Lanier County Lions Club presented her their citizen of the year recognition, the Flatlander of the Year award, last month.
“This award is greatly deserved and long overdue,” Moore said. “(Lee’s) love of the Lakeland community and her desire and willingness to help make it a better place make Ann very deserving of the Flatlander of the Year award.”
The award was presented by former state Rep. Jay Shaw of Lakeland.
“Ann had a big role in making the Jim and Mary Threatte Art and Civic Center a reality,” Shaw said, noting some of her accomplishments.
“The Farmers and Merchants Bank (led by her husband, Larry Lee) would not be the institution it is without Ann as the biggest cheerleader and backbone of all the community outreach that it is involved in. She is truly a workhorse and not a showhorse. (She) never wants to gain any of the credit for her good deeds.”
Lee not only helps her community out, but is a helpmeet as well to her husband, who is the chief executive officer of FMB Bancshares. When someone needs something done and calls Larry and he’s not available, it is Ann who assumes the task and gets it done.
“Her husband ... is daily bringing folks to lunch or dinner and calls Ann on very short notice sometimes, and she always is ready and welcomes them to a gracious table,” Shaw said. “Ann ... is one of the best cooks in the county and also feeds more people than anyone I know.
“Ann is truly a Southern lady in every sense of the word. She has been like a second mother to many young kids in our community including my two sons (Jason and Sam),” he added.
A friend of Helen Strickland’s related that when her son was young, he once declared to his mother that “the next time I skin my knee, I’m going to Miss Ann to see after me.” The friend explained that Ann always helped and made a fuss over children when they experienced a mishap. She would grab the Band-Aids and ointment as she petted a little one in her effort to make the child feel better.
“Ann has been an inspiration to many of us the way she has handled tragedy and adversity,” Shaw said. “She never lost her strong Christian faith and determination to help others even after losing a teenage sister (Patricia Simpson in car accident) and a daughter (Elizabeth Lee at age 20).”
Three years of her life were also consumed with treatments of her 7-year-old grandson, Jack Greene, at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta when he was diagnosed with leukemia at 18 months old.
“Sometimes you were there for moral support, sometimes for care because it was 24-7,” she said.
While Ann doesn’t downplay what’s she been through, she notes that almost everyone has suffered some tragedy or adversity.
“You always come out stronger and maybe more compassionate,” she said. “Hopefully, we learn from it ... It would be a shame if we came out bitter and miserable. I was fortunate to be a happy person and a pretty positive person. If you don’t have faith and believe, I don’t know how you can go on.”
After taking pictures of her at her ranch-style home which seems to sprawl on forever and at the Threatte Art and Civic Center (“I’d rather be shot than have my picture taken,” she declares), we sat down in the cool of her SUV outside the civic center to learn more about her life.
Ann was the youngest of four children born to Patti Simpson and the late Robert Simpson of Lakeland. Larry and Ann both attended Lanier County High School, and he took note of her — even though she was four years younger.
“We went to (Lakeland United Methodist) church together. We started dating the summer after my sophomore year. He was fairly shy and I was fairly shy. He says I had a crush on him. I don’t remember asking him out,” Ann said with a smile.
Ann graduated in June of 1970 and was married two months later at age 18. Son Alex Lee was born 11 months later. Daughter Mary Carol was born in September 1974, and Ann began teaching two months later.
“That was my job: going to school (at Valdosta State College) and having babies for four years,” she said.
She taught fifth and first grades and worked with a reading program for seven years before quitting to become a stay-at-home mom. She has taken some art classes and would enjoy painting and traveling in the future, she said.
Today, her world centers around her grandchildren, Jack, 7, and Will, 2, sons of Mary Carol and Kemp Greene, and Layne, 2 1/2, and Zack, 1, children of Alex and Kristie Lee, all of Lakeland, and helping her husband, his work and their community.
Her husband also put her in charge (along with Walter Livingston) of the project he created, The Ford Farm in Lakeland, for “avid sportsmen, families or even small business retreats — anyone who wants a quiet refuge.”
Though affluent, Ann assumes no superiority, and it was only a short while before the writer was feeling comfortable around her and admiring the person she is.
“The two things I remember my parents telling me,” she said, “(are) ‘You treat other people like you want to be treated,’ and ‘There’s always a bigger pond and bigger fish.’”
As for her life of community involvement behind the scenes, she says, “People need to work together, and that is what I like to do.”