Monday, May 10, 2010

In memoriam: Robert Ark San Lee

This is not about anybody famous. In part, it is a personal remembrance, but it is also a story of a fulfilled American dream. A college roommate and close friend of mine, Bob Lee, died a few days ago after a lengthy illness. I thought some of you would enjoy a section of his obituary, into which I have inserted a personal story, too:

Robert A.S. Lee, a mulitalented mechanical engineer, musician, singer, and connoisseur, died Friday at age 62 after a lengthy illness.

He was born March 26, 1948, as Bobby Chin, and his parents, first-generation Chinese immigrants, settled in Cambridge. All of his relatives came into the US by way of San Francisco in the late 1940s, but his mother, Mary Lee, decided that all of her children would go to MIT and continued on with her husband, Henry, to Cambridge. There, they opened the Silver Eagle Laundry, next door to their good friends, the Berkowitzes, who had just opened the Legal Fish market - the precursor to Legal Seafood - in Inman Square. Bob grew up ironing and folding shirts at the Silver Eagle alongside his father. There he played stickball in the alley while he was babysitting his youger brother, Ed, and his sister, Lana.

Since he was the first-born in an Asian family, Bob always had steak for breakfast while Ed and Lana were only given scrambled eggs.

After attending Longfellow School, he went on to graduate from Cambridge High School. In accordance with his mother’s plan, Bob attended MIT, obtaining both his graduate and undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering. It was there that his love of music was encouraged by John Oliver, who conducted the chorus at MIT.

Here's where I insert the story from me:

Bob had a habit of "conducting" with one hand while he was singing, reflecting the rhythm of the part he was singing. One day, John Oliver stopped the entire chorus and turned to him and said, "It's triplets, not dotted eighth notes." Bob said, "How did you know I was doing it wrong?" John said, "Because you were conducting in dotted eighths!"

Also during that time Bob felt a passionate objection to the Vietnam war. He participated in many local protests and also attended the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam on October 15, 1969. Millions of Americans took the day off from work and school to participate in local demonstrations against the war.

After graduation from MIT, he was hired by the engineering firm of Stone & Webster in Boston. Because of his command of German from singing classical music, he was assigned to work at an engineering firm in Mannheim, Germany, for BBR. He and his wife, Marleen, had the oppportunity to travel all over Europe, but the overriding joy of being in Germany was his love of BMWs. He demanded that if he were to agree to the German assignment, Stone & Webster would have to supply him with a BMW. He spent much of his free time at the Hockenheim Ring on Sunday afternoons, and took driving lessons at the famed Nurnburg Ring.

After returning to the US, he and Marleen started a family of three daughters. He was extremely proud of his daughters' accomplishments in academics, dancing, and gymnastics, and their musical abililty on piano, violin, and oboe. He continued to sing when he wasn’t traveling with Handel & Hayden and the Stoneham Community Chorus. He also served for many years on the Stoneham Finance Board.

Around the same time, he went to work for Foster-Miller in Waltham (an MIT R&D think tank), where his ability to speak many languages was put to use marketing his robot CECIL. His retirement from Foster-Miller was celebrated with his favorite, cognac, being served.


e-Patient Dave said...

My gosh, I had no idea Bob was still around - I remember hearing of his disease many many years ago. He sure did love music!

What a great John Oliver story. Classic.

Emil said...

A wonderful story. Thanks,Paul.

ManxMamma said...

Wonderful biography. Thank you for sharing with us.