McCook native leaves $5 million legacy for local nonprofits
McCOOK, Neb. — A McCook native’s $5 million estate gift served as a happy surprise for the community earlier this year and empowered local organizations to dream bigger than ever before through the generosity of a man who kept to himself while going above and beyond for the place he loved.
Among the organizations benefiting from James Lee’s gift are McCook Community Foundation Fund (MCFF), the McCook YMCA, the Community Hospital Health Foundation, the McCook Educational Foundation and Overland Trails Council – Boy Scouts of America. He led an unassuming life in McCook and was living in Hastings at the time of his death. The longtime electrical engineer told Jim Gustafson, a Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF) gift planning advisor, that he wished he could see the look on recipients’ faces when they heard the news. Gustafson and other NCF staff help Nebraskans across the state create estate plans that benefit the community and family into the future.
“Most people in McCook probably didn’t know Jim Lee,” Gustafson said. “He always talked about how they would be scratching their heads when they found out about his gift.”
Lee was born in McCook in 1936, graduated from McCook High School in 1954 and went on to obtain a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Lee served on the YMCA’s Board of Directors when he lived in McCook, and by all accounts, the organization was important to him. He lived an active lifestyle, cycling and camping throughout his career and during retirement. At the age of 62, he rode from McCook to New Brunswick, Canada and back – more than 5,000 miles round trip. Fitness and recreation played a prominent role in his life, just as they do in McCook.
There is no city-run recreation department in the community, so the YMCA fulfills that role, said CEO Mitch Gross. The organization draws its 2,400 members from McCook, across Red Willow County and as far as Oberlin, Kansas. In the last few years, participation in youth sports programs – basketball, volleyball, flag football, soccer, and softball – increased by 40%. Adult recreation offerings doubled in that same period.
Gross is especially proud of the Y’s youth development programs. The organization collaborates with McCook Public Schools on an after-school program with structured learning opportunities, guest speakers, field trips, arts, crafts, and STEM activities. Their 2023 summer camp quickly reached capacity, but there are plans to expand the program in the future.
“It’s a safe place for kids,” Gross said. “Every day after school, on average, we have about a hundred kids that walk over from the middle school, the high school, or even the elementary school a few blocks away just for a safe place to go.”
Mark Graff, once one of those kids who called the YMCA a second home, said it’s impossible to quantify what the place means to McCook.
“The community relies on the Y for all those recreational opportunities,” he said. “The great thing about it is it impacts every generation. From birth to death.”
Gross believes Lee’s gift to the YMCA will allow for more opportunities for kids, their families, and the community.
“This is certainly a transformational gift for us,” he said. “Our board, our finance committee, our staff will be 100% good stewards of this gift and gets used in the most meaningful impactful manner possible.”
Lee’s gift to the hospital foundation is a testament to his dedication to the community and its continued well-being, said Executive Director Jessica Bortner.
“Many times, they say that these planned gifts are where people’s values and beliefs line up,” Bortner said. “What a huge gift back to the community that he knew raised him, built him, and set him off to do the great wonderful things that he’s done.”
McCook Community Foundation Fund members are embracing the potential of the gift, which will undoubtedly have a huge impact on their work. Though all the details haven’t been decided, they know the gift is an example of the power of planned giving to support the places we love.
“I think it speaks to the true nature of rural living,” said MCFF member Cindy Huff. “There is something about living in Nebraska that makes you proud.”
The Fund will extol Lee’s story in their efforts to encourage area residents to consider giving back to Red Willow County. Statewide, more than $100 billion will transfer in the next 10 years – through the next 50 years, that number jumps to $950 billion. In Red Willow County alone, $608 million is expected to transfer in the next decade. Just 5% of that – $30 million – could make a huge difference in the county’s future.
“People are writing articles, we’re telling stories about the impact of planned giving,” Huff said. “Every opportunity that we have, we want that presence.”
Part of that is fostering a mindset in which community can be family, and, like family, can be included in estate plans to secure a brighter future.
“A lot of people are just like Jim Lee,” Gustafson said. “They want to keep it quiet. But, on the other hand, by doing this Jim was really adopting McCook, the hospital, and the YMCA and the other organizations as his family. That’s truly what he did. He elevated them all to the status of family members.”