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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”