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My family is what makes me proud says Lee, 82

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Robert Lee outside Somerville, his home in Smith’s (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Robert Lee with his 173-year-old rubber tree behind him (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Robert Lee had never rowed in his life so at 76, when a friend suggested he give it a try, he was a little bemused.

Six years later, however, he is in love with the sport.

Twice a week at 8am the eager member of the Bermuda Pilot Gig Club is at the East End Mini Yacht Club.

“I am 82 now,” he said. “Sometimes they tease me about being the oldest in the group, but there is not a member under 60.”

The rowing has been good for his health. Since he started, Mr Lee has lost 12lbs and an inch-and-a-half off his waistband.

Most often he turns up just for the fun of it but he still remembers – with some horror – the year a racing crew was short one person.

“They looked at me and I said, 'You have to be kidding …' They put me in the boat. I kept up with them, sort of. We won but at the end of the race, they said, 'Bob, you have to raise your oar, we won!' I said, 'My arms are so tired, I don’t know if I have enough strength in my arms to raise the oar.'”

In his younger years he was quite sporty.

While studying English and history at Princeton University in New Jersey he was an ice hockey goalie.

Back in Bermuda years later, he joined the Renegades Rugby Club.

In September 1972, they were getting ready to play a game in New York.

“Me and two Australians were doing wind sprints up the dunes on the South Shore at Horseshoe Bay,” he said. “I was in the best shape of my life. Then we had a practice game and three people landed on my left shoulder. I did not get rid of the ball fast enough. I was playing wing.

“I had to go up to New York for them to put two pins in my shoulder."

As luck would have it, only a few days before his rugby accident, he had met a flight attendant named Barbara who lived in the Big Apple.

“She was working for TWA," he said. "I said, 'See you in New York in ten days. I will be playing rugby.' Then I had to call her and say I’m coming up, but not to play rugby. I am getting surgery.”

They were married nine months later.

“I am most proud of my children [Sean, Tim, Chris and Elizabeth] and of being married to Barbara,” Mr Lee said. “I had a lot of rough edges and she has smoothed over a lot of the edges and made me a better person.”

Mr Lee grew up on Pitts Bay Road in Pembroke. His father, also called Robert Lee, was originally from New York City but moved to Bermuda in the 1930s and married a local girl, Helen Trimingham.

Her father, Reginald, ran the Bank of Bermuda. After university Mr Lee went there to work but left after four years.

“Banking was just not for me,” he said.

Instead he partnered with Jay Bluck to form Heritage House, an antiques business on Front Street. After a few years, they parted ways and he established another antique shop, Pegasus, on Pitts Bay Road.

When the cost of shipping larger items like furniture became too prohibitive, Mr Lee decided to specialise in antique prints and maps, particularly Bermuda maps. He often found his treasures in England and Europe.

He sold one print to the National Museum of the US Navy in Washington DC.

“It was a post War of Independence engraving,” he said. “Then Government House in Bermuda found they did not have an antique map of Bermuda, so they priced things out of Chicago and London. Someone said, 'Try Bob Lee at Pegasus.' They said, 'He will be too expensive.' Lo and behold, the map I had was in the best condition and being offered at the lowest price. It ended up at Government House.”

He also had a passion for antique horse brass, the decorative plaques used on horse harness gear, especially shire and parade horses. One of his horse brass sets was made in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Mr Lee can remember a few instances of horses wearing brass in Bermuda when he was growing up.

“I remember there was a man who used to pick up freight from the docks,” he said. “He would go up Pitts Bay Road. He also used to pick up ice at Miles by the waterfront. I think his name was Mr Hurst. I used to go to his stables a lot.”

He was in business for 38 years. Initially, many of his customers were honeymooners from the Hamilton Princess.

“Then in 2003 tourism was declining as we knew it,” he said. “I was getting people in, but it was changing to the business community. So I closed the shop.”

He now enjoys gardening around Somerville, his home on Middle Road in Smith’s.

Back in the 1980s, he took part in a successful campaign opposing a change in zoning at Outer Lea Farm on Middle Road in Smiths that would allow the installation of multi-unit dwellings.

“I spent months going to planning and learning the rules and talking with neighbours. On our appeal against a very questionable decision by planning, Haskins Davis, Minister of Planning, ruled in our favour and the farm was saved," Mr Lee said.

Although many residents have complained because of the smell that often drifts from the Green Land Dairy, he does not regret his efforts.

“The problem is not the cows, but the pit that is there now,” he said. “If you get rid of the pit over there it will go back to normal.

Mr Lee has also led a charge to try to protect a large rubber tree growing at the bottom of his garden.

“The rubber tree outside my home was planted in 1847,” he said. “It was planted the same year as the one in Hamilton by the Bermuda National Library. The Public Works Department don’t like it because the branches go over Middle Road.”

Landscapers Brown & Company have done a good job of pruning it back; less successful were his efforts at obtaining a preservation order.

“They said they don’t do preservation orders for trees,” he said.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published November 17, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated November 16, 2021 at 3:06 pm)

My family is what makes me proud says Lee, 82

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