This is an obituary I wrote about Lethia “Lee” Rose in January, 2003:
It didn’t matter who you were – television personality, sports figure, governor or a couple of kids on prom night – everybody was treated the same when they came into Lee’s Lakeside.
Lethia “Lee” Rose, whose restaurant has been a centerpiece of downtown Orlando since the 1980s, died Friday at her home after an extended illness. She would have been 65 next week.
Rose was also the owner of Lake Eola Yacht Club, which opened in the summer of 2001, as well as a tavern beneath the Lakeside restaurant. Her career as a restaurateur spanned more than four decades and five husbands, and her generosity and kindness earned her a reputation as a quiet humanitarian who could never say no to a good cause.
“My mom was never on any charitable board, she was never a joiner,” says Terry Hummel, a local artist who also writes an arts column for the Orlando Sentinel. “She was a big believer of individuals helping people. I don’t know how many times she paid rent for people.”
Rose moved to Orlando in 1966 with her second husband and they bought a restaurant on Colonial Drive called Roger’s, now known as Barney’s Steak & Seafood. In a profile for the Sentinel last year, writer Jean Patteson quoted Rose on Roger’s: “It was not doing so very well. I said, `Let me go in the kitchen and cook.’ I’d cook and serve, cook and serve. We became very popular.”
Cooking alongside her was a 14-year-old kid named Johnny Rivers. “I lied about my age and told them I was 18,” says Rivers, who now owns Concha Me Crazy just down the block from Lee’s Lakeside.
“She was just a wonderful human being,” says Rivers. “I was more of a mother than anything else.
“I think what I liked the most is she treated everybody the same, she was just a very fair, caring person.”
After a divorce ended her relationship at Roger’s, Rose opened Lee’s Country Pub at the Colonial Bowling Lanes in 1974. She made that a popular spot for Orlando business people and then opened restaurants in Mount Dora and Maggie Valley, N.C. She eventually sold those businesses.
There had been a restaurant in what was once the Cherry Plaza hotel on Lake Eola, although not a very successful one, for 50 years when Rose bought the business and renamed it Lee’s Lakeside. She redesigned the layout to take full advantage of the dining room’s panoramic view of the lake and the emerging city skyline and instantly made it a favorite special occasion dining destination for Central Floridians and visiting dignitaries.
Governor Lawton Chiles was a frequent visitor, says Hummel. He would just come in and have lunch with her, he says, because his mother wasn’t political and didn’t have an agenda. Even he would get the same treatment as everybody else, and if that meant waiting in line for a table then the governor would just have to wait.
And she hated to have people wait for a table, Hummel says. She was always buying people a glass of wine if they had to wait.
The restaurant was known for its tableside service, something that continues today. In fact, the restaurant’s menu has kept many of the same items over the years. “If I try to take things like liver and onions off the menu, you should hear the protests,” Rose said last year. “We still do the flambe desserts, the things that take time.”
Although it has been said that Rose broke every commonsense rule found in any business school textbook, she was an astute businesswoman who firmly believed in taking a hands-on role in her restaurants. She remained active even after she was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001. Although she had a house on Livingston Street, during the last two years she lived most of the time in an apartment between Lee’s Lakeside and Lake Eola Yacht Club so she could be closer to the businesses.
In summer, when many restaurants lay workers off because of slow times, Rose kept everybody working. She knew what it was like to be a server because her first job was as a waitress at the soda fountain of a Kresge’s five and dime store in Ohio after she quit the 10th grade. Some of Rose’s employees have been with her for 30 years, says Hummel, and about half of the estimated 125 workers have been with her more than 10 years, a remarkable figure in an industry plagued with high turnover.
Details on what will happen to the two restaurants and the tavern were not available, but Hummel said his mother wanted to make sure her employees were taken care of.
Lethia Mae Rose was born February 24, 1934, in Hundred, W. Va. Besides Hummel she is survived by daughters Tammy Arwood, Orlando, and Cindy Sowerby, Dallas, and son Joshua Rudolph, New York, as well as 13 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild. Other survivors include one brother and two sisters.
Arrangements are being handled by Carey Hand Colonial Funeral Homes.