On The Couch With Craig: Robert Lee

The eighth in a series of profiles of AZ Coyotes Insider founding members

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Robert Lee has always played the long game. An avid distance runner, Lee ran 80 miles per week while in the service of his country.

That might partially explain his love affair with the Coyotes, who have demanded a lot of patience over the years as they try to build a consistent playoff contender in the desert.

Between Lee’s active engagement in the comments section, his standing as an AZ Coyotes Insider founding member since the site’s inception, and his consistent readership on every story I post, Lee may be my No. 1 subscriber.

Lee is the eighth founding member to be featured in my On The Couch With Craig segment. He has a powerful backstory, and now he has the floor.

Full Name: Robert E. Lee (no relation). My great-great-grandfather was Capt. Thomas J. Box of the 27th Indiana Volunteers. He has a Wikipedia page!)

Twitter Account: @coyotes/dbacks STH-RUNNER

Birthplace: Indianapolis, Indiana

Current City of residence: Mesa, Arizona

Arizona History: My wife (Jo Ellen) and I had always planned on spending the winter out here after we retired. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma (the cancer that Sen. John McCain had) at age 50. I couldn’t retire for a couple of years after her diagnosis and by the time I did retire, her cognitive abilities were so damaged that I debated whether to move to Arizona or not.

I decided to move anyway, had an estate sale and sold everything we owned except for five of my favorite, rare, out-of-print distance running books. I pulled aside a couple of pieces of her favorite Weller Pottery that she had collected (75 Wellers!), sold my truck, put her in her car and with the help of my older sister Dinah, off we went to Arizona.

Age: 65

Occupation: Oh boy, I bounced around. I left home fast. Too fast. I joined the Air Force first. I thought I had signed up for two years but found out on the way from the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) to the airport to basic training that I had signed up for four years.

After the Air Force, I went to Hanover College on the G.I. Bill. I began by majoring in philosophy and later changed to geology, played baseball and started seriously running. I graduated, couldn’t find a job, joined the Army, was accepted at officer candidate school, went to Germany, ran a lot, traveled a lot, got out of the Army, joined the Army Reserve and also found a job at a Navy installation (@nswc crane) as an environmental protection specialist. I was responsible for the base’s three landfills, PCB elimination project, underground storage tanks, asbestos removal and the used oil recycling program.

I retired as a Major from the Army Reserve in 1999 and from my civilian job in 2010.

Hobbies: Every penny I ever earned and saved, every morsel of food that went into my mouth was because of my obsession with the sport of long distance running. When my division commander heard he had a lieutenant who ran 80 miles a week, he put me on the division running team. I was the No. 1 runner on that team for six of seven years at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington D.C. That helped my advancement. At Crane, they were looking for a director for their half marathon and I volunteered. I directed that event for eight years until the base was closed to the public due to 9/11.

I volunteered to recruit runners for the local high school team. I bought one of those electronic finish line clocks and went to all the middle school meets. I stood in the third lane and timed each runner, talked to the kids, their coaches and parents, started a summer training program, winter indoor and road season. After three or four years, the team started going to the state finals. Four of the young runners that I recruited and trained got collegiate full-ride scholarships and my first recruit was an NCAA Division II All-American, and in March 2020, just before COVID, was the overall winner of the Louisville City Run.

Little known fact about you: My only college home run was hit at a reconstructed Crosley Field (former home of the Cincinnati Reds). They moved it to Covington, Kentucky and Xavier University used it.

I’ve won the 50/50 raffle twice at Gila River Arena. I’ve caught six pucks hit over the glass during a game. I’ve never, ever in my life had an alcoholic beverage, been to a bar or a party or a dance, and the last movie that I can remember going to was in 1974. (The Beatles “Let it Be” at Holloman AFB) It’s all distance running, all the time. No time for nonsense. Ha!

Describe how you became a Coyotes fan.

I was starting to make mistakes while taking care of my wife. It was a tough time and I needed a break. I remembered that a friend of mine from Pittsburgh had taken me to a Dallas Blackhawks game when we were stationed together. I remembered how much fun it was. At some point, I can remember a guy dangling a stick over the edge of the boards that had a plucked chicken attached to it. Ed is a subscriber so maybe he can add something to that story. Anyway, I asked my nieces husband, Charlie, to take me to a Coyotes game. Maybe there would be a plucked chicken there or something and I could laugh for awhile (I had no clue about the sport). 

When we walked into Jobing.com Arena (now Gila River Arena), I just couldn’t believe it. I was shocked! I’m still in a state of shock each time I walk into that wonderful place.

At the time, my wife was so sick that for about a year, I had to sleep on the couch right next to the kitchen. I can remember after that first game, laying there on the couch all night just staring at the green numbers on the microwave oven clock, the noise of the game still ringing in my ears and thinking, season ticket here I come!!

I dove right in. I’ve done the whole Coyotes thing, games, meet-and-greets. I will go all the way from that first puck drop until my last dyin’ day.

What is/are your favorite Coyotes memory/memories and what details do you remember?

As a fan, I guess here is where I diverge from most fans. My whole life has been athletes and athletics, but not hockey. The Yotes, for at least for the first eight or 10 years were symbolic and important for me in appreciation of the healing the team provided me and continues to today. The 2012 playoffs were great, meeting all the players were an honor and I was particularly thrilled to shake hands with Coach Tippett (I have not met Coach Tocchet yet but would like to).

There are grizzled combat veterans all over the state of Indiana, sitting in an American Legion somewhere who have been sent Coyotes gear, pucks, sticks and signed jerseys. Man, I bought in! It’s great when Biz (Paul Bissonnette) walks by as he’s going to the arena and sees me (or any fan) sitting out front, hours before the game and says: “Whatcha doin? Chillin?” Those things mean a lot. Just walking into that arena every night is exciting. The lights, the sound, the action, the great arena employees, smiling and talking to all the fans. 

I hope very much that I’ll be accumulating Coyote memories for years to come and I will be crushed if I’m not. 

Tell AZ Coyotes Insider readers more about your work history.

In the Air Force, I was a 63150 refueling specialist. I drove an R-9 5,000 gallon JP4 truck and refueled T-38s and F-4s at Holloman AFB New Mexico from 1974-78.

In the Army, I started out as a Quartermaster, went to OCS (officer candidate school), was commissioned and went to Quartermaster Officer Basic. In the reserves, I changed up a little and went to Tank Commander Certification Course, Armor Officer Advance Course, Combined Arms and Services Staff School and Airborne School.

I later was commander of a company that conducted the certification of tank commanders and always seemed to be on some live fire gunnery range back when the armor school was at Ft. Knox.

Being an environmental protection specialist on the naval base was the most challenging job by far. The great workers at that base who helped me and my co-workers keep the base environmentally shipshape, were a tough lot. I can remember being at the landfill one day and supervising three guys compacting a new landfill cell and suddenly realizing that between them, they had four Purple Hearts in Vietnam.

These guys and many more of them were great workers, great guys, no nonsense, would do anything you needed for them to do but you had to communicate with them face to face. They didn’t want to read about any Code of Federal Regulations and they weren’t interested in anything cited in the Indiana Administrative Codes.

What were some of your notable stops, experiences or memories from your time in the service?

I was stationed in New Mexico for four years. A beautiful state. I was stationed in Germany for close to four years and that was beautiful, too. Near the end, when I knew I was going to get out, I took a week’s leave and rode the train. I jumped into a 10K road race in Paris, that I didn’t know was going on before I arrived. I just jumped into it in my street clothes and raced. We went around the Arc de Triomphe, down Avenue Foch and it ended up being a point-to-point race so I had to find my way back.

I got on the metro and decided to ride it to the other end of Paris. That stop was Père Lachaise Cemetery. I got off the metro, went up the stairs soaking wet with sweat, went to the cemetery there and found Jim Morrison’s grave. I was standing there, soaking with sweat in my street clothes with my race bib number on, staring down at Jim Morrison’s grave.

I guess my most proud moment as an Army officer was taking my wife to the Army Ten-Miler in Washington D.C. just after we were married. There was a dinner the night before the race for all the teams in a giant ballroom.

I had met Jo after a race one day. She was working the drive-thru at Wendy’s and I knew the second I saw her that I wanted to marry her and now I had her here with me in Washington D.C.

Well, I got up to use the restroom and when I came back, the Army Chief of Staff, a four star General was sitting in my seat talking to Jo and they were just immersed in this conversation. She didn’t know him from a waiter or doorman. I just watched. I was proud.

Tell us about your own history as an athlete, and as the son of a “hard core coach.”

I was an all-conference high school football player and an honorable mention all conference baseball player in college. ( batted .333 my freshman year). I guess I’d classify my 45-year running career as brutal.

My dad was a hard-core coach. His and the other coaches’ dressing room speeches before high school football games were unforgettable. The locker room speech in “Miracle” wasn’t even close to what these old World War II veteran coaches gave before high school football games in the 60s.

Just before going out to the field, for a minute or two, they would turn the lights out and have the boys just psyche up in silence. You could hear the showers dripping, then someone would suddenly open up the locker room door and yell, “Five minutes coach!”

It was the referee. The lights would come on, there would be a big yell from the boys and the doors would swing open to this rush of cold air, lights and drums from the band.

I’ll never forgot it and on our second to last trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where I took my wife, we were staying at the Rotary House which is connected to the hospital by a walkway. An hour before her appointment with her neuro-oncologist, I was giving my pre-appointment pep speech.

“Jo, if you can’t answer Dr. Puduvalli’s question, he’ll stop treatments,”: I told her. By this time, her cognition was nearly gone. I tried to guess what question the doctor would ask her. There were quite a few.

I guessed: “Do you know where you are?” would be the question. 

I drilled it to her: “Remember Jo, you're at MD Anderson!”

For four years and five months, I had thought about my dad’s Knute Rockne speeches, and then… “Five minutes coach.” It was time for her appointment. I walked her across the walkway to the seventh floor, brain and spine center, and into the room.

Again, I completely perspired through my clothes during the wait.

Dr. Puduvalli came in, smiled and said: “ Jo, do you know where you’re at?” (I nearly fainted).

In this very faint voice, Jo said, “MD Anderson.”

It was like she had scored a game-winning goal; like Gila River Arena on one of those nights! I leaped up and screamed, ‘Yeahhhhhhhhh!” and gave Jo a high-five.

She was going to get another appointment!

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Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan