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Kenny Lee, owner of Lee’s Discount Liquor, killed in crash

Updated November 20, 2021 - 9:09 pm

Update: Kenny Lee’s family, friends set vigil for Lee’s Discount Liquors CEO

Kenny Lee, heir to the Lee’s Discount Liquor franchise, died Friday morning in a crash in Northern Nevada. He was 53.

“It’s with very heavy hearts that we regrettably inform you that Kenny Lee passed away,” Stephanie Sivertson, the company’s chief financial officer, wrote in a statement Saturday. “Please keep the entire Lee family in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”

The two-vehicle crash was reported at 10:25 a.m. near mile marker 24 on U.S. Highway 93 — between Ely and West Wendover — Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Ashlee Wellman said.

Lee was southbound in a minivan when “for unknown reasons” he veered into oncoming traffic, sideswiping a pickup truck, whose driver had swerved to try avoiding impact, Wellman said, citing a preliminary investigation.

Lee was the only occupant in the minivan, and he was not wearing a seat belt, Wellman said. He died on scene.

Impairment was not suspected, Wellman added. The pickup driver sustained minor injuries.

Lee is survived by his wife, Nami Lee, three children, Nathan, Morgan and Addy, and sisters Tina and Annie.

His death comes less than three months after his father and founder of the liquor empire, Hae Un Lee, died from cancer at 79.

Locals mourn

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak was among several politicians who shared their thoughts on Twitter, saying he and first lady Kathy Sisolak were “shocked and saddened to hear” about Kenny Lee’s death.

“Our condolences, thoughts and prayers are with the Lee family,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., called Lee’s death a “tragic loss for Nevada,” noting that her “thoughts are with the Lee family at this difficult time.”

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford described the crash as “such horrible news.”

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she was “shocked by the car accident that took the life of Kenny Lee of Lee’s Liquor after just losing his father three months ago. A beautiful man like his dad; a devoted father, husband & son who created something so special with the family. Our prayers & sympathies to the Lee family.”

Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore said she was “heartbroken,” noting that the Lees will be remembered fondly. “I loved all the commercials they made together.”

The Vegas Chamber called Lee “a generous supporter of our community.”

Old school, new school

Kenny Lee, who was featured prominently in humorous billboard advertisements with his father, became the company’s president in 1993.

After his father died in late August, he took the helm as CEO of the company, which has 23 stores, making it the largest liquor chain in Las Vegas. Lee’s also has locations in Mesquite, Reno and West Wendover.

“Those of us that watched Kenny from afar, he took over a big responsibility, a big business,” Larry Ruvo, a friend of the Lee family and vice president and general manager of Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits, said in a phone interview Saturday. “Like Mr. Lee, he adapted very quickly. It’s one thing being the president, but being the CEO and president? He worked really hard.”

When Lee’s first store, Plaza Liquor, opened in 1981 Kenny, Tina and Annie helped their father by passing out flyers. The children watched Hae Un Lee work 18 hour days seven days a week, Kenny Lee told the Review-Journal in 2016.

Ruvo said he was one of the first people who met Hae Un Lee when the flagship store opened.

“He was living in the store, working in the store, cleaning the store,” Ruvo remembered. “Kenny wanted to do well for his family and carry on his father’s legacy. It’s just heartbreaking.”

In a 2018 interview, Kenny Lee told the Review-Journal he had worked at his father’s liquor store since he was 12, but the senior Lee wanted his son to become a doctor or a lawyer, as a “typical Korean parent” would, Kenny Lee said.

He attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to study optometry, but while struggling through classes sophomore year, his father called and offered a job at the store.

“I think our business is doing really well, maybe you want to join me?” he recalled his father saying.

Lee switched his major and graduated from the university with a degree in business management in 1992. During the 2018 interview, Kenny Lee said he and his father had dinner together every night to discuss new ad ideas.

“He’s old school. I’m new school,” Kenny Lee said at the time.

About 20 years ago, the Lees founded the Lee’s Helping Hand nonprofit, which has donated “millions of dollars” to charities in Nevada dedicated to education, disabilities and adoption and immigration services, according to the company.

Ruvo, founder of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, said local charities will feel the loss of the philanthropic Lee men as well.

On Aug. 13, two weeks before the elder Lee died, the city of Las Vegas and Clark County declared “Hae Un Lee Day” to celebrate the liquor store chain’s 40th anniversary.

The company described Kenny Lee as a loving son, husband and father, and noted that he also loved golfing and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Details on service arrangements had not been made public as of Saturday.

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @rickytwrites. Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter. Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes contributed to this report.

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