Obituary: Charles L. Lea Jr.

By Sallie James

OCEAN RIDGE — Charles L. Lea Jr. was a high-profile venture capitalist whose boyish grin and infectious charm could put anyone at ease. A consummate gentleman with an unusual ability to make others feel heard, Mr. Lea died on April 3 at his home in his sleep after a brief illness. He was 96.

12438188267?profile=RESIZE_180x180Born on Dec. 2, 1927, in Richmond, Virginia, Mr. Lea grew up in Baltimore, where he graduated from St. Paul’s School. He enlisted in the Army and served overseas in the Pacific at the end of World War II, then headed to college in 1948 after his discharge.

Mr. Lea attended Kenyon College in Ohio, then graduated from Cornell University in 1952. Years later he served as a member of Cornell University alternate investment committee at the Johnson School of Business. He was also a member of the Cornell Council.

Mr. Lea began his business career as an assistant to the president of Bessemer Securities, working in New York City from 1953 to 1961. Then in 1961, Mr. Lea became a partner of F.S. Smithers & Co., where worked until 1969.

In 1970, Mr. Lea became managing director of New Court Securities, the primary investment vehicle for the Rothschild family in the United States. He remained there until he joined Dillon Read in 1981, retiring in the late 1990s.

One of the highlights of his career included bringing Federal Express from a fledgling company through the venture capital process to its first public offering.

He met his wife, Kathleen, at work. They had known each other for years before they married on Dec. 1, 1984. Mr. Lea was an adventurer who loved sailing, golfing and traveling.

He was a true redhead and an impeccable dresser.

“Everybody loved his laughter and loved his smile. He was charming,” Kathleen Lea said. “He tried everything and he was good at everything.”

Mr. Lea was a co-founder of the National Venture Capital Association where he served two terms as president. He was recognized in “Who’s Who in America,” “Who’s Who in Finance and Industry,” and “Who’s Who in Venture Capital.”

He was a former chairman and governor of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland; the former chairman of the investment committee of the Shore Health Systems, a hospital complex in Easton, Maryland, and a member of the investment committee of the Mid-Shore Community Fund. Mr. Lea was also an appointed governor of Washington College, of Chestertown, Maryland.

But despite his impressive, high-profile finance background, Mr. Lea was humble and approachable.

“He was not an intimidating person at all. He was very bright and he was always under the radar. He was not up there in your face,” Kathleen Lea said.

Mr. Lea was beloved in Ocean Ridge, where he and his wife had lived since August 2008. In December 2022, the town issued a proclamation in celebration of his 95th birthday.

“Charles always had this boyish grin and a kind word for everyone. He made everyone feel heard, respected and liked,” said neighbor Kristine de Haseth, a former Ocean Ridge commissioner.

“Whether it was someone new to the island or the trash collector or someone from the Ocean Club who walked their dog regularly on the island. He really tailored his remarks to the person — he would really take the time.”

His wife said their romance ignited one night in New York when he called her up and said he was attending a function and needed a date. The rest was history.

“We traveled a lot. He had to go to Japan several times a year. We went to Africa one time and he went horseback riding. I rode in the jeep and he rode the horse,” she said, laughing.

Another time they went camping in Idaho. The adventures were unforgettable.

Mr. Lea was sharp and engaged to the end.

“The night before he died he talked to a neighbor about local politics,” his wife recalled. “He was always interested in the news and read a lot of books on world wars. He always found common ground with whomever he spoke.”

He is survived by his wife, Kathleen, in Ocean Ridge; two daughters from a previous marriage, Hilary Lea and Emily Lea Boudreault (Stephen); grandchildren Colin Bernard and Catherine Bernard; and niece Elizabeth Oswald.

He was preceded in death by two sisters.

Lorne and Sons Funeral Home in Delray Beach was in charge of arrangements. A celebration of life will be in Newport, Rhode Island, in the fall.

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