The text message from my brother read, “One of my best friends passed away of C-19 yesterday morning.”
His name was Robb Lee, I soon learned. Robb was a stalwart of his Centralia church and the kind of guy who you could talk with about anything.
“Robb put people first,” his brother, Rick, told me. “He just was a servant.”
It turns out that Robb, age 53, was one of the youngest people in Lewis County to die from COVID-19 so far, although there has been a recent death of someone in their 40s as well.
This week, I learned a little about Robb’s life. It’s a privilege to share his story, as one of 36 people in Lewis County to die of the novel coronavirus and 444,615 people in America to have died since the virus was first identified in America a year ago last week.
Anyone who followed Lewis County high school baseball in the mid-1980s would remember Robert Hayward “Robb” Lee. He set the league on fire with a 21-game hitting streak as a third-baseman for Morton High School. That year, he batted over .500, a jaw-dropping accomplishment for any baseball player.
After graduating in 1986, he went on to be a professional bowler on the regional circuit and manager of Marty’s Alpine Bowling in Morton, which his parents owned.
Eventually Robb settled into the family trade, working in the timber industry as a saw filer.
Robb and his wife, Tonya, married in the summer of 1988. They had three children and seven grandchildren, and would have marked 33 years of marriage this June.
The couple celebrated their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior on July 7, 2013, and were baptized on Aug. 6. Robb made sweatshirts celebrating both dates and the verse Romans 10:13, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
A few years ago, a pulmonary embolism settled in his groin and nearly killed him. As he went into the hospital, he told his brother, “don’t let them take my leg.”
That night in the hospital, the doctor said the leg would have to go, but Rick told him what his brother had said.
They kept the leg and Robb recovered, but was permanently disabled. Unable to work, he threw himself into service to his church and others.
He’d take food to people in need and cook huge barbecues for their church. A huge fan of grilling meat, he was nevertheless sensitive to those with other dietary preferences, fixing special meals for a vegan in the congregation.
After the 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Robb dedicated himself to security at their place of worship in Centralia. He even traveled to meet with the pastor of the Texas church to learn as much as he could to prevent something similar here.
“His purpose was his family and his church. Everyone in the church was just like his family too,” my brother, Todd, told me. “He would have laid down his life for them without a thought. He was all in.”
He bought radios for the church security team out of his own pocket, and when he saw that the earpiece wasn’t fitting comfortably in my brother’s ear, he bought a Secret-Service style earpiece (complete with the coils) and gave it to my brother the next Sunday.
That kind of thoughtfulness was just who he was.
At one point my nephews and nieces were cutting and selling firewood for a church youth activity. Robb came to buy some and insisted on paying $40 or $50 for a few bundles, despite protests from my brother that it was far too much.
Robb insisted, then he left most of the firewood with my brother anyway, saying he didn’t have room at home for any more. With his trademark wide smile, he told them to have a campfire and enjoy themselves.
It’s uncertain how Robb contracted COVID. Perhaps from a trip to WinCo or Costco, or to pick up his grandson at the airport, or from attending church.
Robb first felt symptoms of the virus on Jan. 3, his wife told me. He was feeling “blah” when he woke up and “real puny” all of a sudden that afternoon. Still, he thought it was just the flu. He turned 53 during that first phase of the disease.
On Tuesday he felt that he had to go to the ER, where they told him he had COVID. He went back to their Toledo home and felt pretty good, but achy. On Friday night he started feeling crummy. He got up in the middle of the night, and in the morning Tonya found him in his chair, saying he felt like someone was standing on his chest. He wanted to drive himself to the hospital but she took his oxygen level and it was alarmingly low, so they called an ambulance.
Providence Centralia Hospital said he was too sick for them to handle so they took him to Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia. His fever hit 107.5 but his blood pressure was far too low.
After two days in the hospital, he died at 5:42 a.m. on Jan. 11.
Like most people who have died of this cruel and still-mysterious disease, he was alone when he died. No visitors are allowed due to the contagious nature of the disease.
Looking back, Robb’s brother and widow wish they could have done more.
Tonya told Robb she wished he would stay home from church, but he felt a duty.
“He said, ‘No, I’m head of security. I have to be there,’” Tonya said. “He was scared of COVID, of getting it, because he knew what it would do to him, but he wanted to be in church.”
What is her message to others after her husband died of COVID?
“It stinks,” Tonya said. “Everybody needs to be safe. They really do. They need to be cautious. It’s scary. It’s not a hoax like a lot of people think. It’s not. It’s really real.”
Robb’s brother Rick says the same thing.
“This is real and I took a stand against people who say ‘COVID’s a farce or only as bad as the flu’ and stuff, I just tell them, I say, ‘Please take it serious. Please,’” Rick said. “I buried a sister and brother in an eight-week period. You’re not gonna tell me that it’s not real. People say ‘Your brother was immune-compromised and they put it down as COVID to make more money.’ I don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
Rick Lee says it’s been a hard couple of months for their family. Their older sister, who lived in Colorado, died of the virus only seven weeks before it killed their youngest sibling, Robb.
“It’s been rough,” Rick said. “I’m the last sibling. He was my best friend.”
Rick helped raise Robb, who was eight years younger.
“You always hope your kids are better people than you are, when he was my little brother, I always wanted him to be better than me, and he was.”
Tonya said her husband was known for always getting the last word. When he went to the ER a few days before COVID took his life, Tonya said, “OK, babe, love you.”
“Love you,” he replied, as the doors shut on the ambulance and she saw him for the last time on this earth.
Brian Mittge’s columns appear in The Chronicle every Saturday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.