Who is Robert Lee?
What’s life like for the guy with the most common name in the phone book? We called every Robert Lee in the book to find out.
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Photographs by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
The 2009 Oahu edition lists 31 Robert Lees, if you count the Bobs and Bobbys, beating out contenders such as George Lee, Richard Wong and Michael Kim. (Glenn Miyashiro, that old, prototypical “average Japanese name” that Frank De Lima joked about, by contrast, shows up only once.)
What must life be like for Robert Lee, we wondered? There was only one way to find out. Over the course of a week, we called every Robert Lee in the phone book. We also e-mailed every Robert Lee we could find on Facebook, since it’s quickly becoming the new phone book for everyone under the age of 30.
Many weren’t interested in talking; one hung up on us. But we found 10 Robert Lees willing to tell us their stories, and every one of them turned out to be fascinatingly unique. Meet Robert Lee.
Robert Lee is 83 and lives in Moiliili with Miriam, his wife of 58 years. He was born in Kekaha, Kauai, spent three years serving with the U.S. Army in Korea during World War II, and, after he got out of the military, made his living selling things—encyclopedias, automobiles, fresh eggs. He’s retired now, but after speaking with him for an hour, you get the sense he could still sell sand at the beach—Lee bubbles with energy and wit.
One of the things he’s most proud of is running 10 Honolulu Marathons in a row. This would be a feat for anyone, but Lee finished his first one when he was 47 years old. “One day, my daughter told me I was putting on too much weight. I was getting on the fat side, obese, she said. So I went out on Woodlawn Drive, and I couldn’t even run 300 yards. I was huffing and puffing.”
He resolved to whip himself into shape. It took a whole month of running before he could complete four laps around the Roosevelt High School track, and he had to quit halfway through his first marathon attempt, but Lee eventually triumphed—finishing the 1978 Honolulu Marathon in 4 hours, 49 minutes and 43 seconds. (The time is burned into his memory, he says.)
The next nine races came more easily. Lee also ran the Maui Marathon and, at the age of 55, even a 50km ultramarathon. He doesn’t run competitively any more, but still jogs and walks every day for about an hour.
“When I get ambitious, I go all the way to Kapahulu Library and back, about four miles,” he says. “I told my wife, my ambition is to die of a good heart attack on the road. I always carry my ID with me when I go walking.”
Not that he’s got a death wish, of course. Lee has four children and seven grandchildren, and hopes to meet a great-grandchild or two. “Thank the good Lord, I’m still in shape. I intend to be around for as long as I can, to see how my children and grandchildren do,” he says.
Lee wasn’t born a Robert. His original name was Chong Won, after a famous prince of Korea, but his sister Elsie started calling him Robert in third grade and the name stuck. Lee has since passed the Robert name down to one of his four children, although not the one you might expect. Younger daughter Bobi, an R.N. at Kaiser, joins siblings Brian, Bonnie and Brett in alliteration.
Robert Lee is 70, and lives in Hawaii Kai with Judy, his wife of 45 years. He manages the 25 retail branches of Territorial Savings Bank. It’s something of a bonus career for Lee, who retired after a 30-year stint with American Savings Bank in 1996.
Never one to sit still, he went on to start his own commercial cleaning company—with five to 10 employees handling new construction and janitorial contracts. It was an unorthodox move, but Lee’s financial background perfectly equipped him to run a small business. “It was interesting how people in business tend to stereotype the cleaning people,” he says. “Often when they found out I was an ex-banker, they said, Wow, what are you doing? I felt I was their equal. You want to converse about the economy? Fine. You want to talk about your pension plan? Let’s talk about it.”
He says if he was 20 years younger, he could have built the company into a million-dollar business, but, after 10 years of running it, decided to sell it after accepting an invitation from the CEO of Territorial Savings to return to the banking world.
In fact, Lee has been comfortable wearing both blue and white collars at different points in his life. He never completed his university degree at UH, but after working construction for a few years, and doing odd jobs such as parking cars, Lee scored a training program at Bank of Hawaii, a break that opened the door to a position with American Savings Bank. By the time he retired in ’96, he was a senior vice president. “I’m just an ordinary guy, nothing special. I was just lucky,” he says.
In his spare time, Lee golfs. He’s played with the same group of friends almost every Sunday for 25 years, and has taken on every golf course in Hawaii, save for the two on Lanai. (“So damn expensive,” he says.) He also finds time to surf occasionally, a sport that reminds him of his small-kid days, growing up in the little white shacks of Waikīkī’s Hawaiian Camp. “When you’re Chinese, you’re not big-boned, so you couldn’t play football,” he says. “I was 135 pounds, dripping wet. So I spent most of my time down at the beach, surfing and paddling.”
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