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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The Highway Inspector
Robert Lee is 64 and lives with his wife in Mililani in a townhouse he’s in the middle of renovating. During the day, he drives the streets of East and Windward Oahu with his eyes peeled, looking for potholes, graffiti, overgrown grass, even broken service covers on the sidewalk. As an area inspector for the state Department of Transportation, Highways Division, he’s responsible for a quarter of the island, from Middle Street on the H1, through Hawaii Kai, and around to Kaneohe. He’s got a work crew at his disposal to fix problems, but prides himself in handling much of it right on the spot. Illegal event posters on telephone poles? Gone as soon as he sees them.
He doesn’t have much free time (Lee also holds down a second job, working as an assignment supervisor at Aloha Stadium during most sporting events), but when he does, he likes to work with wood. He turns out bowls, poi pounders and bracelets, using wood cut down by the tree trimmers contracted by his department. “They always have to cut back the trees along the roads. So I follow them. Right now, I’m collecting wood so that, when I retire, I have enough to work with, to keep me busy,” he says.
Turns out there’s all kinds of quality woods growing along Oahu’s highways: koa, milo, jacaranda. Lee recently discovered that even lychee wood works well. “When you cut it green, it’s white, and then it dries to a pinkish color, with a nice grain,” he says.
Lee owes his last name to a quirk of Hawaii history. His father was a Yamanouchi, but, as Lee explains: “In 1941, when the United States went to war with Japan, my dad was working at Red Hill, underground in the tunnel. He was a Japanese national, and he wanted to keep his job. So he took the name Lee from his great uncle. I was born with the name Lee, as well as three of my other siblings.”
“I was thinking at one point about changing my name back to Yamanouchi, but all the paperwork would have been confusing,” he says. “So I just left it as Lee.”
Robert Lee is 87 and lives with Jean, his wife of 63 years, in Kailua. He had his name switched as a child, too, but only temporarily, by a neighbor. Lee, the only haole Lee we spoke with, says that, when he was growing up, many of his schoolteachers were from the Mainland and had trouble pronouncing the names of the Japanese students. Instead of working on their pronunciations, they would give out new names. “My friend Roy Kuasake had a Japanese name but his schoolteacher said, From now on your name is Roy,” Lee says.
“As a kid, a lot of my playmates were kids of Japanese fishermen working out of Pearl Harbor. My next-door neighbor in Aiea, he was my age and we got to know each other pretty well. His name was Masaru. His mother [jokingly] said, OK, Robert, from now on you can be called Masaru, and my son is going to be Robert. And that’s what he did, he adopted the name Robert and used it all his life.”
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Lee’s Aiea home gave him a front-row seat on the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I was awakened by the explosions over on Ford Island, because that was the main attack,” he remembers. “Our house was a mile, slightly more, from Ford Island. I was looking right at the Arizona when it blew up.”
He and his mother helped wash off sailors who had jumped into the harbor, hosing them down at the Aiea Boat Landing. “I joined the Territorial guard that very day, expecting to take part in any kind of an invasion repelling,” he says.
The invasion never arrived, but Lee enlisted in the Navy, and spent most of his service time stationed at the Navy’s training station in Puunene, Maui. In 1944, he was assigned to an Officer Candidate School in Michigan, and, while the end of the war the following year cut short his chances of becoming an officer, Lee did meet his wife there.
Lee’s family name traces back to the East Coast. His New Jersey grandfather served as a young officer in the Civil War. No relation to the famous Gen. Robert E. Lee, though; he fought on the Union side.