By Shirley Beaman
She flashes two thumbs up when she knows her daughter has nailed a performance. It’s the special “signal” longtime College of Marin employee Wendy Lee gives her daughter, Crystal Lee, current Miss California and runner up to Miss America 2014.
“It has become something Crystal looks for when she’s onstage,” says Wendy. “She always looks for me in the audience, she always knows where I am.”
It’s the kind of support you would expect from a mother who was named after two pageant queens in Taiwan, where Wendy Lee was born. Her Chinese name, given to her by her father, is derived from the names of two women who were “beautiful on the inside and the outside.” It would prove to be a harbinger for Crystal’s success in the beauty pageant arena.
Crystal Lee is the type of beauty that stands out in a crowd, evident by her many pageant honors: Miss Teen Chinatown, Miss Silicon Valley, Miss California, and First Runner Up to the current Miss America.
Her mother Wendy is also a standout who remembers being the only woman in the male-dominated IT department at College of Marin for years. At one point she thought, “I have been the only woman for quite a long time… but it’s getting better.”
Perhaps being the only daughter out of four siblings prepared her well for that. Two of her brothers reside in Taiwan. The third is the chair of the Industrial Engineering Department at Louisiana Tech University. It’s easy to see why Crystal’s platform at the Miss America Pageant was women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)
Apparently the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. Besides being very good with computers and IT, before her career at COM, Wendy was a dancer/performer — a talent her daughter also possesses.
In 1981, when she was 20, Wendy came to the United States from her native Taiwan, as part of a youth ambassador group of performers. They toured and performed ballet as well as Chinese modern dances at various colleges and local government venues on the East Coast. She could have become a professional dancer, but instead, to the surprise of some, developed her talent for computers.
Wendy was hired in 1990 by COM, originally as a programmer analyst on the Kentfield campus. In the summer of 2006, she moved from Kentfield to the Indian Valley campus. When she returned to Kentfield this summer with her IT department, she was excited about moving into the new Science, Math and Nursing building.
“It feels good to move back to Kentfield, working with the faculty and staff here again, and to see students studying hard in science, math, geology, chemistry, and biology labs. It’s the new energy all about education that matters,” Wendy says.
Miss California’s mom likes the idea that the beauty pageants her daughter has entered support young women being multi-faceted. She thinks it’s great that pageants are an opportunity for young women to earn scholarship money to further their academic goals.
“Crystal’s focus is on the scholarship aspect,” her mom says.
Wendy decided to pursue her education in the United States. It was then that she caught the eye of Wellman Lee, her husband, around the same time she graduated from Golden Gate University.
Wendy and Wellman, also Chinese, but born and raised in the U.S., would wed and have two daughters: Crystal, an accomplished Stanford graduate, and her younger sister, Jasmine, who is 19 and currently a student at U.C. Berkeley.
Prior to that, Wendy finished basic courses at San Jose State University, before transferring her major to computers and attending Golden Gate University, where she worked at the computer lab and completed her master’s degree at the same time. In 1990, immediately after graduating, she was hired as a systems support technician at College of Marin and has been here since.
Wendy characterizes her family as typically American. Home is described as a “fusion of Chinese and American culture.”
Both Crystal and her sister Jasmine learned to speak Mandarin. The girls had fish and a turtle for pets growing up. The family has hosted exchange students in their home.
At Presidio Middle School, where the Lees still keep in touch with some of the teachers, Wendy and Wellman were members of the PTA for nine years. During this year’s Miss America Pageant,ABC aired footage of a 9-year-old Crystal Lee performing a swan dance in her school talent show.
The Lees stressed education, family values, being generous, and treasuring friendships in their household.
When Crystal was 15 years old and entered her first pageant, Miss Teen Chinatown, her mother was interested in the fact that the pageant had a GPA requirement. For her talent, Crystal choreographed and performed her own ballet to modern music in which she transformed into a butterfly. Wendy made the butterfly wings for her daughter’s costume.
Of Crystal’s initial involvement in pageants, Wendy says, “I could not push her to do it… The first time they invited us to compete, I said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ We cannot force children to do something they have no passion for.”
Wendy also helped create her daughter’s stunning costume that she donned during the talent portion of the Miss America competition, attaching all the feathers and rhinestones herself, by hand. She also designed a custom headpiece for Crystal’s performance – skills she credits to her own performing arts background.
Wendy knew that her daughter was a performer: “When Crystal was around two years old and barely walking, I said, ‘Let Mommy take a photo,’ and I was so surprised when she did the splits and put her two hands up in the air [in a ballet-like pose.] I thought, where was this from? And then I knew…”
Years later, Crystal attended the San Francisco School of the Arts where she developed her dance abilities. Here, her mother says, she would learn discipline, which was reinforced in the Lee home. It was the type of discipline that would assist her in succeeding at a school like Stanford, where Crystal would later earn a master’s in communication and a bachelor’s in human biology.
Ballet was a Monday through Sunday affair. On top of that, Crystal studied Russian and Chinese dance. Wendy spent a lot of time backstage and in the audience with her husband Wellman, in support of their daughter.
“No other sight can make me tear up like seeing my parents waving at me from the audience,” Crystal says.
They have also spent countless hours behind the wheel of the family car, driving Crystal to and from her many rehearsals and performances, as well as school. Throughout it all, Wendy has encouraged Crystal to “Enjoy your process and do your best!”
Being a pageant mother can be nerve-wracking, but Wendy says she strives not to be a pushy mother. She stresses the importance of being patient and understanding. Trust is key.
“Crystal knows she can trust me… I will stand by her, and rescue her if she needs it. In return, she’s respectful and she listens to me.”
Wendy says her husband’s personality and love of travel with his family has brought a good balance to their teamwork of raising their two daughters. She is confident that her children had a happy childhood.
“When they need me, it’s time to tweak them in the right direction. Your children respect you for a reason,” she says.
Wendy draws a triangle on a piece of paper and writes three words: “children,” “parents” and “community.” Without the support of parents and community, children cannot succeed, she says. It takes a village. She believes that every part of the triangle is crucial and that without each, the delta is not complete. She stresses the value of education and community.
For instance, she says her co-workers helped influence her daughter’s success.
Ira Lansing, who was Crystal’s Statistics teacher here at COM, was exceptional and made a big impact.
So did Jonathan Eldridge, COM’s vice president of Student Services. There were many others.
“Wendy and her family are some of the best people in the world,” says Michele Moser, a family friend who accompanied the Lees to the Miss America Pageant this year.
As Executive Director of the Miss Marin Scholarship program, Moser is well acquainted with the pageant scene.
Upon returning home to San Francisco from the Miss America Pageant, Moser says Crystal was surrounded by reporters at the airport.
Immediately after Crystal finished her interviews, the first thing she did was walk over to her mother and give her a big hug.
Moser describes Wendy as being the opposite of the stereotypical pageant/stage mother who is seen as overbearing.
“Wendy Lee is constant. She stands back and allows Crystal to shine – but she holds the flashlight.”