Call Me Bob

Photo: Martin Dee

Seated in a boardroom chair at his downtown office, Bob Lee appears relaxed and tanned after his recent return from Palm Springs. But he sits straight up and wide-eyed when the subject of conversation turns to his university. Even after some 30 years of volunteer activity and leadership, UBC is still one of his favourite topics.

The former chancellor, governor, and founder of UBC Properties Trust is noticeably enthused about a lot of things at UBC today, including how the endowment generated from the university’s real estate assets now totals over $850 million in value. He is also enthused by the manner in which the “commuter campus” of earlier years has been transformed into a thriving and sustainable 24-hour community. And he is pleased to know that the real estate development strategy that he first broached to initially skeptical Board colleagues in 1987 has contributed materially to UBC’s evolution into one of the world’s most revered institutions of learning and research.

“The most important thing we did was to sell the land as leasehold rather than freehold,” explains Lee, who is founder and chairman of the Prospero Group real estate company. “That means the university still owns the land and can sell it again when the (99-year) lease is up. I feel this made a difference, but it may take another 80 years before anyone knows it,” he laughs.

But in truth it won’t be another 80 years before the wider community understands the magnitude of Bob Lee’s contributions to UBC. That is because the university has taken steps to honour his legacy in the here and now by announcing that the new and long-awaited Alumni Centre on the Vancouver campus will bear his name. Currently under construction and slated for opening in the spring of 2015, the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre will serve as a hub of connectivity for alumni and students, and as a lasting tribute to one of UBC’s most committed and far-sighted alumni leaders.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate and deserving person to honour in this way than Bob Lee,” says Judy Rogers, chair of the UBC Alumni Association. “The depth and duration of his involvement in the affairs of his university are remarkable to say the least, and the results of his efforts will be evident for generations to come.”

The official naming, Rogers emphasizes, is a means to publicly recognize the 1956 Commerce graduate for three decades of service that has had far‑reaching effects. “More than anything else, it’s simply to acknowledge his generosity of spirit, which I think is perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of his character.”

Lee says that he learned about generosity from his father, Bick Lee (born Yat Yee Lee), who in 1911 received financial support from fellow villagers in Guangdong, China to start a new life in Canada. After first settling in Victoria, he moved to Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1916, where hard toil while helping to raise seven children enabled him to establish a thriving import company and become active in community politics and philanthropy. “He raised a lot of money for the Vancouver Chinese Public School and served as its chairman for about 30 years,” says Lee. “And every year he sent money back to the people in his village as payback for helping him.”

Although he still keeps a full schedule, Lee finds as much time as possible to accommodate frequent meeting requests from admiring Sauder School students, thereby exemplifying his belief in the kind of interaction that will be a cornerstone of activity at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre.

He went to work for his father after graduating, but a subsequent venture into the largely unexploited field of commercial real estate sales proved prudent, thanks in part to an influx of wealthy Hong Kong residents who feared a Chinese government takeover in the early 1960s. A number of bankers who knew Bick Lee’s affable and hard-working son advised prospective Hong Kong investors that they would be well served by the young Cantonese speaking salesman. “The first building I sold was the biggest apartment building in the West End; it had 263 suites,” he says. “I showed my father my commission cheque. It was ten times my annual salary, and he said, ‘you are in the right business.’”

His escalating success enabled him to eventually emulate the community service and generosity for which Bick Lee, who passed away in 1994 at the age of 104, was well admired. But his attention was irrevocably attracted to UBC in 1984 when Board of Governors chair David McLean enticed him to take a seat at the table. In spite of planning to serve only a couple of terms on the UBC Board, Lee never really left, saying that the people he interacted with were far too extraordinary, as were the prospects for enriching the university’s endowments through the leasing of land assets.

Not only that, but his relationship with his university had also become meaningful on a personal level. He met his wife, Lily, BSN’56, while they both were students and, one by one, each of their four children eventually followed in their parents’ footsteps across the graduation platform at UBC (Carol, BCom’81; Derek, BCom’82; Leslie, B’Com’84; and Graham, BCom’87). So rewarding were his experiences with the family’s alma mater that Lee agreed to countless more volunteer hours as chancellor from 1993 to 1996, and he remained as chair of UBC Properties Trust until 2011. Today, he continues to serve as a chairman emeritus of UBC Properties and honorary chair of UBC’s $1.5 billion start an evolution campaign. He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in 1996, and in 2006 he made a personal gift on behalf of the family to establish the Robert H. Lee Graduate School at the Sauder School of Business. “The graduates of the MBA program at UBC are our future leaders,” he says. “We rely on these people to be the best so that Canada will grow with them.”

Although he still keeps a full schedule, Lee finds as much time as possible to accommodate frequent meeting requests from admiring Sauder School students, thereby exemplifying his belief in the kind of interaction that will be a cornerstone of activity at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre.

Relaxing once more in his chair, he reflects a bit longer on UBC matters, including his gratitude for the naming of the Alumni Centre and its inherent value to both students and graduates, his admiration for each of the three UBC presidents with whom he worked, and the fundamental importance of learning and research to future generations.

“I have three grandchildren attending UBC now too,” he says with an elder’s twinkle. “I’m very happy with how things have turned out.”

Robert H. Lee Alumni CentreThe Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre will be opening in 2015, UBC’s Centennial year. The first of its kind in Canada, the centre will be a visible, permanent commitment by UBC and alumni UBC to 300,000 graduates around the globe. It will be a place for connection, collaboration and life‑long learning – as well as a showcase for the exceptional accomplishments and aspirations of our alumni.

Comment

4 comments

  1. Bill Lee says:

    Great contribution Bob! Thanks for your devotion to the University and legacy that you are leaving for other alumni to follow. We are all thankful and proud of your accomplishments.

  2. Bill Lee says:

    Congratulations Bob on your significant accomplishment! Thanks for your devotion to UBC and leaving us a great legacy for other alumni to follow. We are all thankful to God and proud of your contribution!

  3. Guy Rose says:

    Dear Bob: Please let me know if I can be of any help in this exciting project.

    Thanks
    Guy Rose

  4. Deanna Lee says:

    Thank you for all that you have done for the city, UBC, and the family. So proud of you and thankful.

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