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 60, and oversees more than 6,000 personnel as the head of the Army and Air National Guard in Hawaii, as well as Civil Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans’ Services and the Youth Challenge Academy. “It’s quite hectic,” he says.
As a major general, he’s probably the best known Robert Lee in the Islands. “As I was growing up, I was always asked, ‘Oh, are you related to Robert Lee the schoolteacher?’ But I think at this stage, other people are probably getting more calls for me than vice versa,” he chuckles.
Lee’s military career began while he was attending the University of Hawaii, through the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He spent years as a self-described weekend warrior, but steadily rose through the ranks of the Army Reserve, until he was commanding general of the Ninth Regional Support Command of the U.S. Army Reserve Pacific. In 2003, Gov. Linda Lingle tapped him for the position of adjutant general of the Department of Defense for the state of Hawaii, which he’ll likely hold until the end of her administration next year.
Lee spent his civilian career repairing and overhauling nuclear submarines stationed at Pearl Harbor. “I tested all the systems that were repaired, to make sure they all operated correctly, so they were safe when it returned to sea,” he says. “It’s quite an extensive amount of training. First you need an engineering degree, and then the Navy completely retrains you in nuclear engineering.”
He’s not sure why his parents named him Robert, but guesses it was simply a common name in the late 1940s. (A conjecture that’s borne out by www.babynamewizard.com, which shows that Robert was the second most popular name in the nation for a boy in the 1940s.)
“When I was younger, people would say, ‘Oh, hey, like General Robert E. Lee.’ I never figured I’d make general myself,” he says. “I’m immensely popular in Virginia. When I go visit, I’ll check into a hotel and the clerk will go, really!?”
This Robert Lee enjoys investing as a hobby.
Before he retired, Robert Lee worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in Diamond Head Crater at the air traffic control center, before it was moved to the airport. He has fond memories of the spot. “I prepared the information that the air traffic controllers used in their work,” he says, “Working in Diamond Head was great. I did shift work, and during the evenings it was beautiful—nice and quiet and peaceful. They had Crater Concerts, but those were few and far between.”
Today, Lee, 73, lives with his wife and son, and enjoys investing as a hobby. Like many of the other Lees we spoke with, Lee got his first name from his father, and passed it on to his son, although he converted his son’s name to the Hawaiian approximation: Lopaka.
It ain’t easy being Lee.
After meeting all of these Robert Lees, it was clear that the handle comes with its own set of challenges. Checking in at the airport? Just giving your name won’t be enough. “I should just rename myself my social security number, it would be faster,” says Lee the college student.
A few of the Lees have even become victims of other, deadbeat Robert Lees. “One attorney from New England sent me a threatening letter, calling me out for not paying a debt,” Lee the banker remembers. “I replied, I took my black marking pen and wrote, kiss my ass. And I didn’t hear back from him for a couple months. And then he called me and asked, Why did you do that? I said, you should check out your facts. I’m not the guy you’re looking for. Had you inquired politely, maybe I would have helped you, but when you send me a threatening letter, my instinct is to retaliate. I never heard from him again.”
Lee the land surveyor had a similar close call when his wife at the time got a call from the water department, warning that their water was going to be turned off for nonpayment of the bill. “She went running down to the water supply, only to find out it was the other Robert Lee who lived in Kona. They called us, because he wasn’t listed, and we were the only available Robert Lee in the phone book.”
Lee the marathoner quit using Visa after it mistakenly added the charges from a Mainland Robert Lee onto his credit card.
Other mix-ups are more benign—each of the Lees could name a Robert Lee they’ve been mistaken for at some point: Bobby Lee the boxing commissioner, Robert Lee in the city prosecutor’s office, Robert Lee at Hawaiian Electric. The name has connected all these men in a very real way, even if they’ve never met.
Despite the occasional confusion, Lee the land surveyor says he actually likes his name. “We have a common name, but I don’t think there is a common Robert Lee,” he says. “It’s a common name for uncommon people.”