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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 has been a land surveyor for almost 40 years; he's now president of a land-surveying company in Kalihi.

The Land Surveyor

Robert Lee is 58 and lives in Hawaii Kai with his wife Pamela. Of all the Robert Lees we spoke with, he’s the only one actually named after the famous Civil War general. “My father’s name was Edward,” he says. “And, if you remember, in Robert E. Lee, the E stands for Edward. So my father just took it to another level and named me Robert.”

As a civil engineer and a licensed land surveyor, Lee does everything from topographic surveys needed to plan infrastructure such as sewers and water lines to boundary surveys used by real estate developers. After being in the business for almost 40 years, he’s become the president of Towill, Shigeoka and Associates Inc., a land-surveying company based in Kalihi.

The job has taken him all over the world, including Micronesia, where he spent seven years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, surveying government lands to facilitate the conversion of Yap and Palau from Trust Territories to independent republics. It was rigorous work, involving jungle treks, camping and traveling by boat, but Lee says he enjoyed every bit of it.

Now that he’s back in Hawaii, his moniker has led to a few interesting run-ins with other Robert Lees. Years ago, he was thinking about joining the Mililani Lions club. “But there was a Robert Lee in the club, so I thought, eh, too many Robert Lees, I’ll go to another club,” he says.

He ended up joining the Chinatown Lion’s Club, but fate seemed bent on uniting the two Roberts. “It just so happened that the Robert Lee who was in the Mililani Club quit and moved to downtown, and joined our Chinatown Club,” he says, with a laugh. “Robert’s about 80 years old, but since I’m the senior member, I call him my grandson.”

Like many of the other Lees we spoke with, he’s passed on his name. However, since he has three girls, he had to settle on naming one of them Roberta. “With no boys in the family, that was the only way I could carry forward the Robert name,” he says.

Now 80, ophthalmologist Robert Lee still examines patients six days a week.

The Ophthalmologist

Robert Lee is 80, and lives in Nuuanu with Roberta, his wife of 46 years. At a time when most of his fellow octogenarians are retired, Lee happily works six days a week as an ophthalmologist, spending each day examining patients at a different optical shop around town.

“My wife and kids tell me, ‘retire already.’ But what am I going to do? I don’t want to stay home and watch TV all the time,” he says. “A couple of months ago, I had a patient who’s 98 years old, and said, Oh, Dr. Lee, don’t retire, I’ve been coming to you and your dad for 43 years.”

As you might guess of someone who’s been working with patients for almost 50 years, Lee is a people person, gregarious and full of stories. He’s fond of dropping little jokes into the conversation. “You know, I surf,” he’ll declare, and then pause before finishing: “On the Internet.” Or when talking about his son, “He passes gas. [pause] An anesthesiologist.”

He also likes to recruit people into La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the world’s oldest international gastronomic society, of whichhe’s been a member since 1975. The local chapter meets regularly for dinner parties and black-tie dinners, and travels to other cities for national meetings.

Despite his love of food and wine, Lee’s not much for cooking in the kitchen, although he does like to whip up concoctions such as gin-and-tonic jelly (imagine a sophisticated Jell-O), and white tomato vodka. “You filter the tomato juice, add a little jalapeño juice. Oh, the nectar of the gods,” he says. “I don’t drink much. It’s just for conversation.”

Lee got his first name from his father, Robert, and it lives on with his two sons, as well: Robb and Brett Robert.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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