District Attorney Bob Lee’s death in October stunned the Santa Cruz community, but he had battled cancer fiercely—and privately—for more than a decade. Now one of his closest friends reveals the remarkable inside story
This is what I remember about Bob Lee. It was sometime in the mid-1960s, nearly 50 years ago. (Did I just say that? The number seems nearly inconceivable.) He was in the third grade, I was in the fifth. He was a little towheaded dynamo, in constant motion, with a huge, big-toothed grin. He was quick, glib, a bit of a wise-ass. And cocky. Oh, man, was he cocky. Self-assured. And competitive. At the drop of a dime, he was ready to bring it on. He was always ready. Let’s go.
He was small and wiry then—he got his height later, after high school—but he never backed down. Not from anyone. He knew it all, and he let you know it. And he loved to laugh and smile. It was as though he got filled up with a huge charge of electricity whenever something humored him, which was often. He would light up, flash that grin, and then break into a unique and irrepressible howl of laughter.
That love of laughter defined his being. Toward the end, when the twists of a decade-long cancer battle took him down, and eventually took his life, he still loved to laugh, loved to joke and tease and cajole. That is what I will always remember about him, even as I cry while I write this. Unbridled joy was his modus operandi. And I miss it. As the days turn dark with winter, I miss it badly.
We both savored baseball when we were kids, and that is what first brought us together. We talked baseball all the time, played catch and pick-up games, followed the box scores on the sports page. He would come to love the San Francisco Giants, as I did, but his team back then was the Baltimore Orioles, who swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1966 World Series.
His real name was Archibald Robert Lee, named after an uncle and his father, and he hated the Archibald part (I learned about it early and learned never to bring it up), and he went by Bob, or Bobby, with most people his entire life. But to me, he was “Grich,” after the Orioles’ great second baseman Bobby Grich, and he named me “Carew,” after the line-drive-hitting Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins. We called each other by those nicknames until the end.
At his memorial service this past October, his older brother Mark Lee let us in on an adorable story about when Bobby was young. He had this way of announcing his presence at gatherings—at the beach, at parties, at games, at the county building, wherever—by calling out in that high pitched voice of his, very rapidly: Bah-bee Leeee! Bah-bee Leeeee!!! He blasted it out with both force and conviction, joyously, his arms stretching out into the air like a champion boxer in the ring, the big grin spreading across his face. And you knew that the fun and joy had both arrived. I loved it. I loved him. His presence was always a gift.
Mark told us how as a little kid, his brother would grab a Nerf basketball and go charging down the hallway of his home acting as though he were in a big NBA game, a big grin on his face, yelling out: Bah-bee Leeee! Bah-bee Leeeee!!!
I can hear him doing it as a kid, as an adolescent, as a young adult. As District Attorney. He was the damn D.A. of Santa Cruz County, and he still did it. He was still full of joy and laughter, and I can hear it, and I miss him, miss the charge, the joy and the unbridled laughter. The kid always liked to have fun.
Who in the hell ever thought we’d get to that stage in our lives when we would begin sentences with the phrase “Back then … ” and how quickly we’d get there? That was for old people.
But back then, meaning in the ’60s and ’70s, kids had to entertain themselves. Another of my close childhood friends, Ken Lyford, died of a heart attack this past summer, and at his memorial service his siblings and our old neighbors reminisced about how we played football and basketball and baseball until dark. No video games. No iPhone games. No apps. We played with each other. Outside. Until long after dusk. Until we literally couldn’t see the ball anymore.
During the summers, we made our way to the beach whenever we could, playing there, riding waves on canvas mats or body surfing, and then returning home to play some more.
Bobby and his three older brothers—Doug, Mark and Bill— grew up in a modest bungalow on the corner of 42nd Avenue and Capitola Road (where they had two bunk beds in a singles bedroom), today one block away from the massive commercial juggernaut known as 41st Avenue. I think it’s hard for recent arrivals to thoroughly grasp this, but back then, the neighborhood was something of a rural outpost, very isolated and distinct from the rest of Santa Cruz County. The area was made up of dairies and begonia fields and strawberry farms stretching down toward Pleasure Point. As Mark reminded us at the memorial, there wasn’t even a stop sign at 41st and Capitola Road. The world around us was one big playing field.
On Christmas Day, after the presents had been dispensed, we would gather at Soquel Elementary School for pick-up football games, often in a mud bowl, and we would all return to our homes afterward covered in sludge. Before Bobby died in October, one of our mutual friends, Mark Jones, gave him a blue football signed by many of us who played in those games a half-century ago. Bobby treasured those boyhood games—the laughter, the competition, the camaraderie, the joy. Those were innocent times, and he never wanted to lose that innocence. He slept with the ball that night. He didn’t want to let go.
From childhood through adolescence, our late teens and on into adulthood, our lives were invariably intertwined. My cousins were his friends; his brothers were my friends. I adored his parents. During the late 1970s and 1980s, we were members of a motley crew known as “Cove Rats.” We spent our summers at Sunny Cove in Live Oak, where we played volleyball and softball and body surfed, and then played cards into the night. We forged lifelong friendships that would last for decades.
It was nine years ago this past October that Bobby paid a visit to my house. I had just been discharged after far too long of a stay at Dominican Hospital. I was laid up in bed, in a sour mood.
In the spring of 2005, I had been diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive colon cancer, and, that summer, had gone through a brutal regimen of chemotherapy, radiation and a nasty surgery in which I lost several body parts. By the time I got out of the surgery, I was a wreck—partially paralyzed, in horrific pain, suffering from depression and morphine delirium. A happy camper I was not.
Bobby strolled quietly into my room. I could tell he was worried about me. He sat down and put his hand on my leg. It was just the two of us. He had a story he wanted to tell me, and it was this: The previous year he had gone in for a medical checkup, and his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) numbers (a marker for prostate cancer) had been off the charts. Way off the charts.
He had gone back for more tests and biopsies. It turned out he had advanced cancer that had spread outside of his prostate. Bad news. “It’s inoperable and incurable,” he said to me.
Imagine my incredulity. Bobby and I had both been hit with potentially fatal cancers before we turned 50. “Grich,” I said, “we’re both too young and good looking for this to happen to us.”
“Carew,” he said in that cocky, jocular manner of his, without missing a beat. “At least one of us is too good looking.”
We both laughed, he with that big wild moose-howl of his. He had broken my blue mood. Soon we were talking about other things, but mostly about baseball and the coming playoffs. We joked about how badly the Giants had played in September and how I literally couldn’t bear to watch them while going through my treatments.
Then I remembered something. Bobby had come to a barbecue at my house earlier that summer with lots of our close friends from high school, and I remembered how he had seemed a little distant, caught up in his own thoughts. It was unlike him, but I figured it was something at work, a tough case or something in his personal life that he didn’t want to share.
I now realized what it was. Bobby was keeping this horrific news to himself. After all the turmoil and dysfunction that had taken place in the D.A.’s office leading up to his election upset in 2002, he explained to me, he didn’t want his illness contributing to the mix. By the sheer force of his character and leadership abilities, he was doing all he could to turn the atmosphere in the office around, to bring some team-building and harmony to the second floor of the county building. It was no small feat.
“You can’t tell anybody,” he said to me. And he said it emphatically. He allowed me to tell my wife, Siri, but that was it. Not the rest of my family, not our close friends, and certainly not any of my political associates in the community, whom, he felt, simply could not be trusted. “I can’t have anyone challenging my leadership,” he said. “They can’t think I’m weakened. The place is a shark tank, and once they smell blood …” His voice trailed off. Then he looked me in the eyes with a nod. “Keep it quiet.”
I took it all in. I was in shock. I broke down and cried after he left. This had to be a very bad dream. Or maybe it was the morphine. My boyhood buddy Bobby Lee and I were now waging war against cancer together, in young middle age. How fricking nuts was that?
For the next several years or so, Bobby did fairly well. He went through a variety of treatments, switched to a healthier diet, recommitted to exercise. He developed a bucket list of places he wanted to go, things he wanted to do.
He was also a brilliant D.A. The political set in Santa Cruz bitches and moans about everything, especially about law enforcement officials in position of authority. But the proof is in the pudding. No one of any substance ever ran against him during his three re-election campaigns, including this past June. When it came to a broader sense of justice, Bobby was in sync with the community, particularly when it came to securing justice for victims of violent crime. And he himself was a brilliant prosecutor, never losing a single jury trial during his career. Not one.
We talked local politics only on occasion (it was a world he truly detested), and, aside from sports and our families, when we were alone together, engaged in a near-decade-long discussion of what it meant to live with cancer, checking in on each other’s most recent medical tests and prognoses. Of course, we could only do this in absolute confidence, in private, when no one else was around. I had been very public about my cancer, and, for me, it worked. But for Bobby, the shield of secrecy was held firmly in place until the very end.
In many respects, this made his journey much more difficult, not only for Bobby, but also for his wife Barbara—his “soul mate,” as he called her, the love of his life. Having cancer is a heavy load, and, for the most part, they had to carry it by themselves. Bobby felt that he couldn’t share the burden with those who loved them—even when Barbara herself was diagnosed with a treatable form of breast cancer in 2007.
When people found out this past fall that he had been diagnosed more than a decade ago, they were shocked. Bobby had been an active and aggressive D.A. throughout most of those years. Even when he was sick at the end, he was in constant contact with his office, and, in particular, his close friend, confidante and then-Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Rosell (who formally succeeded him last month). He so closely identified with his position that he could never let it go. Never. He lived and breathed his work.
Last spring, I got another call from him. His health had taken a severe turn for the worse. Because of extensive tumor growth and damage caused by radiation, he had to go through a series of difficult surgeries that left him with a technological challenge that I also shared. In a lifetime of serendipities, this was yet another.
In truth, the crisis brought us closer together, and, even more profoundly, it brought those in his inner circle closer together, too. Even while he was dying, Bobby loved being the center of the party, the straw that stirred the drink, that centrifugal force that drew everyone together. We chatted for hours, often past midnight, putting Barbara to sleep as we talked.
At some point this past summer, after his illness had been leaked in the paper, I decided I wasn’t going to give the cancer any more power, that I was going to free the secret and lighten the load. It was easier said than done. The secret had been so ingrained in my day-to-day life that I had a hard time talking about it, even with people who were also privy to his diagnosis. I was evasive, even with close friends.
Then one afternoon when we were sitting in his backyard, Bobby said to me: “Carew, I want you to preside over my services.”
His request hit like a freight train through my chest. I didn’t want to go there with him, not at that moment, not when there was still hope that the medical professionals could deter the cancer that was raging in his body. I kept hoping he could “turn the corner.” It was a phrase I used often.
“Fuck you,” I said, feigning anger. I was fighting to hold back tears. “I want you to preside over mine.”
He smiled. “Keep it light,” he said. “Make people laugh.”
I quit fighting him. “Can I tell attorney jokes?” I asked.
“Defense attorney jokes,” he retorted quickly. He still had that sparkle in his eyes. We both laughed.
“And,” he added. “Remind the Board of Supervisors that I got more votes than all of them … combined.”
He had his wicked sense of humor until the end. “Oh, and don’t make me out to be a goody two-shoes,” he said. I faked a hard-ass glare at him. “Come on, Grich,” I said. “I can’t lie.” But I knew what he meant.
During our days spent together through our teens and early 20s, Bobby had run with the bad boys, but there were lines that he didn’t cross, nor did we let him. Let’s just say that certain laws were broken on a regular basis by our crew, but Bobby never went there. Ever. Anyone who says he did—and I have heard some idiotic rumors—is full of crap. Absolutely. Bobby simply wanted to be remembered as one of the boys.
During the final weeks and days of Bobby’s life, a remarkable group of friends, neighbors, family and work colleagues congregated daily (and nightly) at the Lee household. There was food and drink and long conversations. Our beloved Giants were making another dramatic run to the World Series championship (their third in five years), and Bobby took it all in, until, well, he couldn’t any longer.
One day after he passed, when we were discussing Bobby’s musical tastes (they were, shall we say politely, eclectic), Barbara noted that he loved Irish music. His neighbor, Tracey Heggum, helped us locate Flogging Molly’s “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” on her iPhone. The song seemed to capture perfectly the spirit of Bobby’s life:
If I ever leave this world alive
I’ll take on all the sadness
That I left behind
If I ever leave this world alive
The madness that you feel will soon subside
So in a word don’t shed a tear
I’ll be here when it all gets weird
If I ever leave this world alive
Bobby’s memorial service at Twin Lakes Church was an amazing gathering (which, he had insisted, not be held at the same time as one of the Series games.) He had selected his own speakers, and they represented a fascinating cross-section of his life: a more recent friend, Larry Morse, the District Attorney of Merced County; former Soquel High teacher, Larry Hattis, who had been a friend and colleague of Bobby’s for 40 years; his talented homicide prosecutor Celia Rowland; Michelle (aka “The Belle”) Poen, a lifelong friend dating back to Cove Rat days; her brother, Dr. Joseph Poen, a radiation oncologist who provided critical medical support to Bobby during his cancer battle; his brother Mark, also an attorney, who captivated the audience with tales from the Lee household; and, finally, Rosell, whose fidelity to Bobby was admirably unyielding.
The common denominator among them was that they all loved Bobby, and they were all brilliant and amazingly articulate. They provided a combined portrait of Bobby that was absolutely vibrant and multi-faceted. In spite of our 50-year friendship, I understood him in ways that I hadn’t before. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute.
Afterward, a woman came up to me in tears and said simply: “He took care of me many years ago. When no one else was in my corner, he was. What a good man.”
Late last week I went over to visit Barbara, with whom he had spent the last two decades of his life. They were an incredibly happy couple, always on the run, finding various ways to share time together, walking their beloved dogs on local beaches, and, when scheduling permitted, embarking on excursions to Europe and other faraway places. Bobby liked to pack as much into his life as he could.
The holidays are, of course, a tough time in the aftermath of loss, and in the case of Bobby’s death, I can hardly fathom the darkness of that particular vacuum for Barbara. But she had a Christmas tree and holiday lights up, just as Bobby would have wanted.
He genuinely adored the holiday season. He threw gala Christmas parties and loved to attend them. He delighted in wearing Santa hats and spreading joy. At the D.A.’s office he would throw parties for the kids of his staff members.
Bobby and Barbara had a holiday ritual that they began near the beginning of their relationship. They would take the small, cut-off rounds from the trunks of their Christmas trees and turn them into ornaments, writing a word or phrase on the round that encapsulated the preceding year. It was typical Bobby. He loved maintaining traditions.
Barbara keeps the rounds in a faux gingerbread house brightened with holiday decorations. She brought them out for me, one by one, and went through them in chronological order. 1996, for instance, had the single word “Engaged.” The following one had “1st Christmas Together.”
Sometimes, the phrases were less personal. 1999 said simply, “End of Century.” 2002 marked his victory in the D.A.’s race: “We Won.” 2004, the year he was diagnosed with cancer, was more cryptic: “Faith and Love.” And on the back of it he had written: “And Science.”
Other rounds celebrated trips to England and Scotland (“Kilts & Convertibles”), and the passing of his father (“Guardian Angels”). 2010 celebrated the Giants’ first World Series championship with “Torture”—the team’s unofficial slogan that year.
The ornaments marked their lives together—good times and bad—but always with optimism, even when the days were dark.
The last one contained a bit of a surprise for Barbara. 2013 had been a rough year—a resurgence of Bobby’s cancer, extensive radiation and surgery, but by the beginning of the year, well, there was hope again. Bobby had written on the front “Dancin’ In the Rain,”—the theme, as it turned out, of his memorial service—and on the back, “Blue Sky’s Ahead.”
We both sat there in silence. Bobby’s optimism had proved unfounded, of course. There had been little blue sky. His horizon had turned to darkness. But Bobby had somehow managed to continue dancing in the rain, even until the end.
As I noted, Bobby had asked of me a couple of things before he died, and I have done my best to comply with his wishes. He knew I would. Death does not a friendship end. As I was to discover this past year, it only deepens it.
During our conversations about our spiritual beliefs and the afterlife, there was one thing about which we were both certain. Love is eternal, we assured each other. And even in the darkness that engulfs those who miss and love him, I believe it is. A distant light it may be, but with each passing day it will grow brighter. Somewhere, that indefatigable spirit of his is dancing in the rain.