It’s with a heavy heart that we share the news of the passing of Katie Lee, Goddess of Glen Canyon, on November 1, 2017. Katie was raised in Tucson and called the desert Southwest her home and sanctuary. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and went on to have a quietly successful career as an actress on stage and screen. While working as an actress, Katie’s interest in playing folk music grew and eventually eclipsed her acting career.
As a folk musician, Katie played guitar, wrote and sang her own songs and those of others. She worked with numerous 20th centuries folk artists and jazz musicians, including Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Peter McLaughlin, Shelly Manne, Burl Ives, and many more. She recorded 13 albums in her career, several of which paid tribute to her love of the Southwest, Colorado River, and Glen Canyon.
In the early 1950s, Katie visited Glen Canyon for the first time. It was love at first sight. She, along with two friends – Frank Wright and Tad Nichols (affectionately known as “We Three”), spent as much time as they could in Glen Canyon, drifting down the river, camping and signing on the beaches, and climbing in and through the numerous serpentine sandstone canyons. Glen Canyon became their Eden and source of spiritual nourishment. They would return to Glen Canyon as often as they could until 1963, when the Bureau of Reclamation damned Glen Canyon. The damning of Glen Canyon broke Katie’s heart but fueled her environmental activism. Katie fought alongside David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Martin Litton to save “her” beloved Glen Canyon, but sadly, they lost and the world lost a remarkable and beautiful treasure in Glen Canyon. Once Glen Canyon was buried beneath the waters of “Lake Foul” (Katie’s favorite name for Lake Powell), Katie spent the remainder of her life (55 years!) raising hell and awareness of environmental issues in the Southwest.
Following the damning of Glen Canyon, Katie began writing about her love of the Southwest with a focus on the Glen Canyon. Several of her books revolve around the subject of Glen Canyon – Glen Canyon Betrayed: A Sensuous Eulogy; Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends; All My Rivers Are Gone: A Journey of Discovery Through Glen Canyon; The Ghosts of Dandy Crossing. In each of these books, Katie turns to words as she fondly recalls and describes every physical and visceral detail of Glen Canyon.
During the last few years of Katie’s life, she saw a resurgence in interest in her activism, music, and writing. Two critically acclaimed films were produced that highlighted Katie’s efforts protecting the natural beauty of the Southwest – Damnation and Kick Ass Katie Lee. Katie was invited to film festivals around the country to speak about the importance of environmental activism; in turn, she inspired an entirely new generation of activists.
Katie called Jerome, Arizona home since 1971. Jerome is a former mining town perched on the side of Mingus Mt., a town populated with self-reliant, artistic, tough, and tender people. Katie and Jerome were a perfect fit. She loved the town and the townspeople loved her. She reveled in riding her bicycle naked from her home at the base of town to the post office every year on her birthday to collect the cards and well wishes from friends and admirers. Anyone who met her, knew she loved to swear and did it with remarkable aplomb. Katie left this world on her own terms on Wednesday, November 1, 2017, just eight days after her 98th birthday.
Katie donated her extraordinary collection of photographs, writings, songs & music, letters, and journals to the Cline Library Special Collections and Archives. It may be one of the most important collections documenting Glen Canyon prior to and following the damning of the Canyon. An online finding guide to Katie’s collection is available as well as selections of photographs and recordings from her collection via the Colorado Plateau Digital Archives. Prior to her passing, Special Collections and Archives developed an exhibit about Katie’s life and passions titled Naked Truth: the Katie Lee Exhibit.
It was Katie’s wishes for her archival legacy to be housed at the Cline Library Special Collections and Archives. Shortly after her passing, the remainder of Katie’s manuscripts, journals, music, and photographs came to the department. Although it will take some time to fully arrange and describe, highlights from the donation include Katie’s original journals and medium format slides describing and documenting her Glen Canyon river trips, annotated maps used for river trips and hiking, drafts of her books, original recordings, correspondence with fellow river runners and activists, and much more. Special Collections and Archives anticipates having a virtual and physical exhibit celebrating Katie’s life, work, and experiences during the year of her 100th birthday (2019-2020). Stayed tuned for additional information.