Dr. Herbert Yee, a Sacramento dentist and real estate investor who spoke not a word of English when, at age 6, he emigrated with his mother to the United States from China, succumbed to pneumonia on June 26. He was 96.
The gregarious Yee quickly learned English, becoming proficient enough to win the position of class in president in his junior year at Sacramento High School and earning acceptance to Stanford University, said Dr. Franklin Yee, a surgeon and one of Yee’s younger siblings.
“Right from the get-go, he showed a lot of smarts and leadership,” Franklin Yee said. “He bridged both the Chinese community and the community at large.”
Over his lifetime, Lee served in many prominent positions, including as president of the California St ate Board of Dental Examiners, president of the International College of Dentists, regent at the University of the Pacific, a board member for both the California Museum and the California State Railroad Museum, as well as grand president of all the Yee family associations in the Americas.
That last position was one their father Henry Yee, a Sacramento chiropractor and herbalist, had held, Franklin Yee said. Their father had come to the United States as a boy of 11 and had earned a civil engineering degree from Stanford University, Franklin Yee noted, and Herbert Yee had striven to emulate their father’s business acumen, educational aspirations, civic work and family values.
Herbert Yee’s grandson, Dr. David Yee, explained: “In Chinese culture, filial piety or reverence for ancestors is incredibly strong.”
The pull of family was so strong that after Herbert Yee earned his degree in dental surgery in 1948 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco, then one of the schools at Stanford but later a part of Stockton’s UoP, he returned to practice in the same building where his father worked and the family lived at 707 J St.
If that property remains in family hands until 2029, the Yees will have owned the building for 100 years. Herbert Yee’s son, Dr. H. Wesley Yee continues to practice dentistry there.
The family eventually moved to a home on T Street, Franklin Yee said, and it was there where Herbert Yee started his married life with his sweetheart, Inez, in 1945. They were married more than 70 years at the time of Inez’s death, and in addition to Wesley Yee, they welcomed three other sons: Drs. Randy, Alan and Douglas Yee.
At the same time Herbert Yee was building his dental practice, he and his father also were acquiring undeveloped land and made deals to build shopping centers, said David Yee, a urologic oncologist who practices mainly at Sutter Medical Center, Roseville. For years, David Yee said, his grandfather counted Lucky supermarkets among his tenants, and more recently, he made a deal that brought a Sprouts Farmers Market to the Land Park neighborhood.
Yee owned homes In Palm Springs and Tahoe and acquired classic cars such as his 1940 Nash and 1952 Rolls Royce. His professional and charitable work secured him a place in the hall of fame for the Angel Island Immigration Station, alongside I.M. Pei, Jerry Yang and other luminaries, as well as the California School Board Foundation Hall of Fame.
Despite the wealth he amassed, Herbert Yee often continued to practice the frugality of many self-made millionaires and survivors of the Great Depression in certain aspects of his life, David Yee said.
As a child, David Yee said, he had observed that his grandfather enjoyed having a glass of wine at dinner and that the labels bore the names of Ernest and Julio Gallo. It wasn’t until he took classes in viticulture and oenology at the University of California, Davis, that David Yee realized that those wines wouldn’t fare so well with critics. Still, he said, he and his grandfather shared a glass of Two Buck Chuck upon occasion.
Even though Herbert Yee’s children and grandchildren would go on to patronize fine dining establishments such as The Kitchen, David Yee said, Herbert Yee looked for tasty food at working-class prices.
“My Grandpa said, ‘Why spend $200 at The Kitchen when you could get a 10-course Chinese banquet for 10 people for the same price?’” David Yee said.
In addition to Franklin, Wesley and David Yee, Herbert Yee is survived by his son Dr. Alan Yee and his sister Carolee Lim, nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
The family held a funeral service at East Lawn Memorial Park on July 3 but plan to schedule a public memorial service when public health restrictions on large gatherings ease.