HARWICH — For Lee Culver, wearing a Harwich Police Department badge for nearly 30 years wasn’t the sum of his service to the town he loved. It was just a start.
Mr. Culver, who retired from the department in 2008, died Sunday morning at the age of 72 after what friends describe as a courageous battle with cancer. Though the disease was debilitating, Mr. Culver remained civically active as long as he was physically able, and was the town’s emergency management director and a member of town committees at the time of his passing.
He joined the Harwich Police Department as a patrolman in 1979 but soon became a detective, the position he held for the rest of his police career. A no-nonsense officer, Mr. Culver could be gruff and imposing or charming and personable as the situation demanded. He served for several years as the department’s court prosecutor, and working with then-Captain Peter Welch, helped grow Harwich’s old civil defense operation into a more modern emergency management department.
Their operation was put to the test during Hurricane Bob, said recently retired Deputy Police Chief Thomas Gagnon.
“He just wanted to make sure that in times of crisis, that things got done in the best possible way,” Gagnon said. Mr. Culver helped coordinate a massive shelter at the Cape Tech school and was well connected with state emergency managers. “He was able to bring in resources,” Gagnon said.
But arguably his greatest contribution to the town involved service to young people. In 1978, he was appointed to the town’s new youth commission, and served on that board and the current recreation and youth commission for the better part of 40 years, helping shape programs and activities for kids and teens.
“He was very dedicated, he was very passionate about helping the children in the town,” Gagnon said. “He tried to deliver what was best for the youth of Harwich.”
It’s no mystery where that focus came from, said Cape Tech Superintendent Bob Sanborn. Mr. Culver had great love for his children and grandchildren, and this inspired his need to advocate for young people, he said. Mr. Culver became Harwich’s representative to the Cape Tech school committee in 1988, and continued to serve in that position at the time of his passing. He recently served on the executive subcommittee, the school committee’s governing board, and had a very adaptable leadership style.
“He was a consensus maker in many cases, but he was not afraid to speak his mind when he saw something that didn’t jibe with his sensibilities,” Sanborn said. He also chaired the safety and security subcommittee, helping to craft the procedures designed to keep students and staff safe during emergencies. Mr. Culver was a key member of the committee overseeing construction of the new school building, and had a say in some of the new school’s security features.
“He just took an intense interest in anything Harwich, and was a staunch advocate for Cape Cod Tech,” Sanborn said. “He was always someone I could call for advice and for support,” he added. “Just a good guy.”
Though Mr. Culver took part in many planning meetings for the new school, he was not well enough to tour the building under construction. “It’s sad that he won’t be able to see the end result,” Sanborn said. But he brought to the project the expertise he had honed in another big building project.
In 1998 and 1999, Mr. Culver was the chairman of the community center building committee, building support for the project, helping to plan it, and overseeing construction. It was a labor of love. Community Center Director Carolyn Carey had just been hired to operate the new facility and overheard Mr. Culver speaking about her with another town official on a speakerphone. “He said, ‘Is she worthy? Can she do the job?’” she said with a chuckle. “Since then, I’ve been trying so hard to be worthy of the vision he had.”
Even shortly after the community center opened, Mr. Culver was amazed by the number of people using it, and the number of lives it was enhancing. “It was really becoming a living, breathing piece of the fabric of the community, and that’s what he wanted,” Carey said. Mr. Culver was the chairman of the community center facilities committee at the time of his death.
“What drove Lee a lot was family,” Carey said. “I think that he saw this town as his family, and nothing was more important to him than his very own family—but that everyone could feel that sense of worth and appreciation.”
While Mr. Culver valued privacy in his personal life, he and his longtime partner Brian Powers were among 13 couples who made history in 2004 by taking out marriage applications on the first day the law allowed same-sex couples to do so. In a joyful ceremony at Harwich Town Hall, Mr. Culver and Mr. Powers signed their names on a paper wedding aisle runner leading to the town clerk’s window, and posed for a group photo. It was an unmistakable statement, given that Mr. Culver came from a time when many gay men felt compelled to conceal their sexual orientation.
“He stood tall,” Gagnon said.
“He has a beautiful family,” Carey said. “The definition of family changed for him. He was able to expand that definition.” While being true to himself probably wasn’t always easy, and might explain his sometimes gruff exterior, “there was such a soft soul inside,” she said. “He always led by example.”
Gagnon said the department has received condolences from police and emergency management officials from around the Cape and across the state. He’ll be fondly remembered by those who worked with him, but particularly by his family.
“He was extremely devoted to his children and grandchildren,” he said.
“I’m just blessed to have him as a friend, and still grateful to his family who loaned him to the town,” knowing the long hours he worked both as a police officer and as a civic leader. “That was really great of his family to know that he was giving back and making a difference.”
Visiting hours are today, Jan. 23 from 1 to 3 p.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Morris, O’Connor and Blute Funeral Home, 678 Main St., Harwich. A memorial service will happen on Friday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, 697 Main St., Harwich.