Updated 5 yearss ago
Joe R. Lee (third from left, back row) and Clarence Otis Jr. (far right) with other Darden executives and Boys & Girls Club members
Superficially, Joe R. Lee and Clarence Otis Jr. are a study in contrasts. Lee was raised in rural Georgia in the 1940s and learned the restaurant business as a cook and manager. Otis lived in the Watts section of Los Angeles during the urban riots of the 1960s but kept his focus on education and earned scholarships to college on his way into the corporate world.
But the men have a lot in common. First Lee, then Otis, worked his way up to become CEO of Darden Restaurants, the Fortune 500 business that operates multibillion-dollar restaurant chains. They also share a desire to help disadvantaged children, standing together earlier this year to dedicate a new Boys & Girls Club facility in the historically black town of Eatonville near Orlando.
Lee and Otis say the facility is a safe haven where youngsters can have fun while developing skills and good habits to help them succeed in life.
"I've seen the results," Lee says — Boys & Girls Club members tend to make better grades, graduate and get into less trouble than their peers. The Eatonville branch, where 83% of members come from families with incomes of $30,000 a year or less, was dedicated to Lee for his longstanding support of the organization. A decade ago, he chaired a capital campaign that raised a record $18 million for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida.
"The impact that Joe has had has measurably changed lives," says Gary Cain, president of the non-profit, which was founded in 1944 and operates 29 clubs in Orange, Brevard, Osceola and Seminole counties.
Lee, who retired as chairman of Orlando-based Darden in 2005, credited his mentor, the late Bill Darden, with inspiring him to support young people. And he applauded Otis, his successor at Darden, for inspiring others and supporting groups such as the Boys & Girls Club. Darden contributed $1.3 million for construction of the Eatonville branch and another $200,000 for operating expenses. Sound investments, Lee and Otis say, in the community's future.