Like father like son, Hall-of-Famers in sports and life

By JAMES PHILLIPS,

The first ever Scott County Sports Hall of Fame father and son inductees are very well known for their athletic achievements in this county. Stewart Lee was inducted in the inaugural class in 2015, and father Tom, Sr. followed with his induction in 2018. Tom and Stewart are both remembered for their ability, athleticism, sportsmanship and accomplishments. The Lee duo is also well known for those athletic displays during their time playing at Mississippi College, basketball for Tom and baseball for Stewart.

In addition to the SC Sports Hall of Fame, both men have been inducted in to the MC Athletics Hall of Fame. Both Tom and Stewart were celebrated athletes that helped lead their teams to championship levels, but at the core they are both amazing individuals that were blessed to be amazing athletes.

It is one thing to be naturally talented. It’s a whole different ball game to be supremely talented and be able to live up to the expectations that accompany God-given talent. Neither Tom, nor Stewart, shied away from the spotlight or the biggest moments when the game was on the line. It may be tough to get either of them to talk about themselves in those pressure filled situations, but their actions spoke far louder than words ever could have.

After hanging up the sneakers and the cleats, both men took their talents and competitive nature to the courtrooms of Mississippi. Judge Tom Lee now serves as senior U.S. District Court Judge in Jackson, and Stewart has been named one of the top up-and-coming attorneys in the Jackson area and is in private law practice in Madison.

Tom and Stewart’s athletic activities at Forest High School were separated by over 30 years, but both men brought the same talent, intensity and noiseless leadership when they were Bearcats. They were both three sport standouts and helped lead the teams they were a part of to phenomenal successes.

When Stewart was dominating on tennis courts and baseball diamonds in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Tom was right at home enjoying his sons competitive drive and passion for sports. He was a multiple sports standout at Forest High School from 1956-1959. On the basketball court Tom was a scoring machine at forward for coach Durwood Smith’s Bearcats. He averaged 23 points per game his senior year on the way to being named All-Little Dixie Conference.

On the baseball diamond Tom was the teams pitching ace with a 7-2 record his senior year. He also led the team in hitting with a .370 average splitting time between centerfield and first base. He enjoyed running track, but conflicts with the baseball schedule made it impossible for him to be part of the track team. However, during his senior year the track coach picked Lee up from baseball practice and drove him to the conference track meet. Lee went on to win the Little Dixie Conference title in the high jump without even warming up.

After excelling on the field and in the classroom at FHS, Tom went on to play collegiate basketball for the Mississippi College Choctaws. He was a three-year starter at the point guard position. He was the Choctaw’s floor general for the 1960 MC team that set a national scoring record averaging 114 points per game. The mark set in 1960 by the Choctaws has never been equaled and still stands today. When delving deeper into that record it’s extremely impressive that the team accomplished this feat before the shot-clock or the three-point shot were implemented in college basketball. It has been said that Lee wowed the MC crowds with his slam-dunking ability during his playing time.   

During the time that Stewart was growing up in Scott County and excelling in multiple sports across the state and entire Southeast, Tom not only passed along his athletic ability, he also gave fatherly advice. Before every game, or tennis match, Tom would relay the same important advice from father to son and former athlete to current athlete. “Do your best, and have a good time” was the message the elder Lee repeated to his talented son for years. This was a message that his son not only took to heart, but put on full display in every sport in which he excelled.

These were very simple and encouraging instructions that Stewart believed in. He now passes along the same pre-game message to his children every time they prepare to play. Family Matriarch, Norma Ruth Lee, said, that when Stewart was getting ready to compete his dad would tell him those exact words before every game, and while it is a simple statement of encouragement it has a deeper meaning.

“It is understood in our family that that it takes practice and preparation in order to do your best,” she said. “Then it is always important to have a good time while playing any sport. It comes very natural for Stewart to use those same words as his children are now sharing in and enjoying the same passion he had for participating in sports.”

There is little doubt that Stewart was always well prepared and ready for competition. On the tennis court Stewart was a young phenom that had already racked up numerous accolades and awards in junior tennis by the time he was eligible to play on the FHS tennis team. He won numerous U. S. Tennis Association tournaments, represented Mississippi on two U.S. Junior Davis Cup teams and was named Outstanding Junior Boy Player of the Year by the MS Tennis Association.

When Stewart started playing high school tennis as a seventh grader, he became the youngest tennis player to ever win a state championship for the MHSAA, and began a run of success that is unparalleled. He would go on to win six straight Class-3A individual state tennis championships, and help lead the Bearcat Tennis Team to back-to-back team state championships in 1993 and 1994. Two of those years Stewart was suffering from severe leg injuries, but used his resilience and refusal to lose to drive him, and his team, to victory.

Longtime Clarion Ledger sports editor Rick Cleveland once wrote of Stewart, “He hits a wicked two-handed backhand that looks more like a left-handed baseball swing, and he is quicker than a hiccup and can run down shots you’d have sworn were clear winners.” Even though he was supremely talented, and almost unbeatable on the tennis court, it was baseball that was Stewart’s first love.

Stewart was a three-year starter at shortstop for the FHS baseball team that made it to two Class 3-A South State Finals. He was a captain and led the Bearcats in hitting his junior and senior years hitting over .500. He was also the starting point guard for the FHS basketball team his last two years at FHS. To top it all off he was a straight-A student and elected FHS Student Body President.

Stewart followed his heart and moved on to Mississippi College to play collegiate baseball. At MC he was a four-year starter and lettermen. He was named to the All-Conference Team, All-Conference Tournament Team and served as a team captain during his college career. Stewart set a MC baseball record with a 19-game hitting streak during the 1997 season and was named 1998 GTE Academic All-American.

During his undergrad years he matched his outstanding baseball performance in the classroom where he maintained a straight-A GPA during all four years and served as MC Student Government Association President. After graduating MC with honors Stewart completed his law degree at the University of Mississippi Law School in Oxford in 2001.      

A reader who has met or spent any time with either Judge Tom Lee or his son Stewart knows that either of these men would prefer to speak about anything other than themselves or their accomplishments. There is a quote from Benjamin Franklin that epitomizes both Tom and Stewart in athletics and life, and that saying is, “Well done is better than well said.”

Both Tom and Stewart almost repeated one another when they said that growing up in Scott County was a true blessing. “I believe that Scott County has had more than its share of tremendous athletes and sports were important because we loved to play,” Judge Lee said. “Our community always had such wonderful support and great coaches that always brought out the best in their players. We are very blessed.”

Stewart seconded his father’s words and said he would not have wanted to grow-up anywhere other than Forest. “I have always been extremely proud to be from Forest and Scott County. There is nowhere else I would have wanted to grow up,” Stewart said. “We had some great athletes, great teams, greats coaches and wonderful people in the community that always supported us.”

Tom and Stewart Lee gave Scott Countians a sports show in two different generations three decades apart, but the drive, dedication, attitude and leadership was present anytime either Tom of Stewart walked onto a field or court. Their hall of fame athletic careers, academic careers, professional careers as well as their walk-through life, have taken very similar paths.

With both Judge Lee and Stewart, their on field and on-court talents were easily recognized, but it was not just the way they played their chosen sports at such high levels that set them apart. The way they have handled themselves on and off the court makes them not only hall of famers in sports, but hall of famers in life as well.

The 2019 Scott County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony will start at 5 p.m. on April 27 at the Livingston Performing Arts Center at Roosevelt State Park in Morton. Tickets are $10 per person and available at  Bank of Forest, Community Bank, and Cox Chevron in Forest. Tickets are also available at the Bank of Morton and Priority 1 Bank in Morton and Scott County Broadcasting Network on Highway 80 in Lake.