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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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Robert Lee is double majoring in physics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Whiz Kid

Robert Lee is 20 and is just starting his junior year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, studying physics and computer science. He has a part-time job developing iPhone apps for Island tech company Oceanit Labs. His current project for them involves working with the Hawaii State Civil Defense on an application that will help Civil Defense crews assess damages more easily after a disaster. Lee has also written a couple of more lighthearted apps. One makes kung-fu punching and kicking noises when you wave your iPhone around, and another will tell you whether you happen to be facing mauka or makai.

Lee is full of imaginative little projects like these. One of his most recent accomplishments was modifying TheBus’s new online bus tracking system, TheBusHEA, which lets riders check a Web site to see when the next bus will arrive.

“To me, that wasn’t a good solution, because you don’t have Internet at the bus stop,” Lee explains. “So I converted the system into one you can use by text messaging. TheBus liked it so much that they gave me a full tour of their facility and they’re trying to work it into their system.”

In his free time, Lee enjoys playing jazz piano, something he picked up as a freshman at Punahou School, mostly because no one else was doing it. “I started playing jazz just to differentiate myself. Maybe not on a name basis, but from every other Asian kid I looked like.”

We’re guessing Lee isn’t going to have much trouble setting himself apart. “I like trying to help people by solving little problems, when I’m programming, or at school,” he says. “Having a really common name isn’t a huge problem; it’s more of an annoyance. Maybe someday I’ll come up with a solution to everyone being named Robert Lee. I’m not quite there yet.”

Firefighting is Robert Lee's life—he's both a fire captain and the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association.

The Fire Fighter

Robert Lee is 52 and lives in Waipahu with his wife, Liberta. More than 30 years ago, he became the youngest firefighter to ever join the Honolulu Fire Department. “I was two weeks out of high school when I took the test,” he says. “To qualify for the exam, you had to make 18 by Dec. 31, which was my birthday, so I qualified to the day. A month and a half after I turned 18, I got this job.”

At the time, he says, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a firefighter, but the work quickly sucked him in.

“Our job is to help people,” he says. “I’ve seen good things, bad things, funny things, gruesome things. Every day when you come to work, you really don’t know what you’re going to do. You can be doing housekeeping [at the station] one day. Other days you’ll be out on a brush fire all day. Other times you get funky situations, like a cat caught in a tree, or a dog in a gutter.”

Of course, there’s a rough side to firefighting, too. In addition to dealing with fires, firefighters are often first responders to highway and other accidents. Lee says he’s risked his life more times than he can remember, and seen enough death and destruction for a lifetime. “I’ve seen whole families taken out in auto accidents. The worst thing we have to deal with is children getting hurt or dying. They’re innocent. It’s hard not to take that home.”

Today, Lee is a captain at the Waipahu Fire Department, and president of the statewide Hawaii Firefighters Association, a job that keeps him running even on his off days.

Lee owes his name to someone named Andrew, who just happened to be a jerk. His father wanted all the kids to have Biblical names, and Robert’s four other brothers got appropriately Christian monikers. But when it came time to christen little Andrew, his mother objected. She knew someone named Andrew she didn’t like, and no son of hers was going to be Andrew. Robert it was. It’s proven to be a good name; Lee has passed it along to his own son.

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Honolulu Magazine January 2018
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