Mercile Johnson Lee

Mercile Johnson Lee

Dr. Mercile J. Lee stood as a giant in vision, education, and service. Her extraordinary life’s work left a giant footprint in the lives of students, colleagues, neighbors, friends and family. It is this impact that will remain in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved her.

It was Mercile’s visionary leadership that led her to establish The Chancellor’s Scholars Program and The Powers-Knapp Scholars Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). Over 35 years ago, these two merit-based scholarships were created to open the doors of higher education for many talented minority students. The program’s core principles of “Excellence in Scholarship, Leadership, and Service” underscore Mercile’s desire to provide each scholar with tools to ensure their academic success and enhance their ability to make a difference in their communities. More than 2,600 students walked through these doors of academic opportunity and received guidance, nurturing, and sometimes “tough love”, all with the intent of helping them realize their full potential. Today, they contribute to the betterment of society as doctors, lawyers, university professors, business leaders, social workers, teachers, administrators of non-profit organizations, government officials, and community change agents.

Mercile’s love for learning was established early in life under the guidance of her parents, Mack Henry and Hattie Mae Johnson in Chase City, Virginia. They taught her the significance of education, and the accompanying values of a strong work ethic, honesty, integrity, dignity, and a commitment to helping others. This foundation paved the way for personal academic achievement. She received her B.A. in education and philosophy from Virginia Union University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Hartford Seminary Foundation. It also led Mercile to a meaningful career as an academician and higher education administrator for over 50 years. From 1970-1975, she served as a professor of psychology and of counseling as well as chairperson of the education and psychology departments at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas. Her impact was so profound at the institution that she was asked to serve on the Board of Trustees in 1990, and upon retirement, was given the status of Life Member of the Board. Early in her career, she served as an advisor at Virginia Union University and a student services administrator at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Prior to founding the Chancellor’s and Powers-Knapp Scholarship Programs, she was the Assistant Dean of Students at UW-Madison, ultimately retiring in 2013 as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

The impact Mercile sought to make in people’s lives extended in the greater Madison community. Her civic engagement spanned 40 years and included work on the Boards of numerous non-profit organizations including Dane County Big Brothers Big Sisters; the Urban League of Greater Madison; and the Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin. She was also a founding member of the Madison/Dane County Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition which honored the life and work of one of her early mentors, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mercile received awards for her community leadership including the Rotary Club’s Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award; the City of Madison and Dane County’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award; the YWCA Women of Distinction Award; and the UW Outstanding Woman of Color Award. Her lifelong commitment to service was rooted in deep religious convictions established by her parents and nurtured through church affiliations, including her active, longtime membership at First Baptist Church of Madison.

After living a life of purpose, Mercile succumbed to a long- term illness and died peacefully at St. Mary’s Hospital on October 25, 2018. She is survived by her son, John Robert (Robb) Edward Lee IV (Jacqueline) of Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.; and grandchildren, John Robert (Robbie) Edward Lee V; Noah Christian; and Ava Madison. Mercile is also survived by her siblings: Dr. Ida Hill of Chesterfield, VA; Dr. Anthony Johnson (Ernestine) of Chesterfield, VA; Ellinor Washington of Malvern, PA; and Roger Johnson (Bonnie) of Chase City, VA; twenty-one nieces and nephews; and a host of other close relatives and friends. She was preceded in death by her parents and siblings, Hattie Johnson, Melba Johnson, Alvin Johnson, Lonius H. Johnson, Dr. Mack I. Johnson, Ronald H. Johnson, and Cora J. Coleman.

The family wishes to express appreciation to Mercile’s Home Instead caregivers Rosemary Kuhnle, whose care was extraordinary, and Shannon Xiong; neighbors Cheryl Goodnan, Gail Cody and Rick Hong; the healthcare team of Dr. Laural Rabson at Dean Clinic and Dr. Gloria Song at St. Mary’s Hospital for their excellent medical care over the years, and many others whose thoughtfulness and empathy she deeply appreciated.

Special gratitude is reserved for Mercile’s closest friends – Marion Brown, Ruth Evans, Dr. Gloria Hawkins, Dominic Ledesma, Dr. Jim Taylor, Jill Thomas, and Joann Pritchett – who showed their love, devotion, and commitment to her comfort and care in a way that was truly remarkable. There are simply no words to express the family’s depth of appreciation to them.

A memorial service will be held at 11:00 AM on November 29, 2018 at CRESS FUNERAL HOME, 3610 Speedway Road in Madison. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Mercile J. Lee Chancellor’s Scholarship Fund, please make your check payable to the University of Wisconsin Foundation and mail it to University of Wisconsin Foundation, US Bank Lockbox, Box 78807, Milwaukee WI 53278-0807 or go online at Please note that your gift is for the Mercile J. Lee Chancellor’s Scholarship Fund 132201412.