Saturday, June 11, 2011, began like most other days for Bob Lee. Just before 8 a.m., he tied his New Balance sneakers, threw on his Outrun the Sun cap, and ambled from the home he built in 1954 across Westfield Boulevard at 72nd Street to the Monon Trail. It was a walk he had made about 5,000 times, usually alone. On this day—his 90th birthday—his daughter, Diane Scott, came along.
They walked toward Broad Ripple, a route Lee had worn out over the previous 16 years. He used a cane and stopped often to rest. Near the Indianapolis Art Center, he noticed a crowd. Then balloons. There were signs and a banner with his name. He saw dozens of familiar faces: runners, walkers, and cyclists, all singing “Happy Birthday.” High-fives, hugs, and kisses followed.
Later that day, he pulled out a legal pad and wrote, “Diane walked me into one of the best [parties] a 90-year-old could have dreamed of. 75–100 people were there. Lots of prizes and cards.”
Similar abbreviated memories fill more than a dozen of Lee’s notebooks. They list the people he met, their phone numbers, birthdays—a community that came to call the soft-spoken bricklayer from Putnam County the “Mayor of the Monon,” a nickname Lee cherished. Due to physical limitations, Lee’s wife, Maye, couldn’t join him. But she would ask who he’d seen on his walk, so he started carrying a notebook to chronicle those details. 5-06-09 Janet Adams leaves for London w son for a week Tues. 8-25-09 Several beautiful fives. 12-19-10 Keeter and Bob went to sunrise for breakfast I pd she tipped. 2-14-10 A young lady 30s gave me two good hugs for Valentines day. “It was his way of sharing his joy with her,” Scott says.
After Maye died in 2006, Scott believes, the Monon became a place of solace for her father, and he looked forward to seeing acquaintances. When he stopped driving, Monon buddies took him to dinner and Colts games. Having friends on the trail became even more important as Lee’s health declined. He developed congestive heart failure and became susceptible to fainting suddenly from low blood pressure. His walks shortened to a couple of miles. On at least two occasions, friendly faces were around to call an ambulance or take him to a hospital. The day a cyclist hit him, a Butler student he didn’t know walked him home and administered first aid.
Sometimes, Lee was the one coming to the rescue.
Janet Adams met him in 2005 after moving into a condo along the Monon. Early on, the marathoner would zip by and wave. “The first time I stopped, he got out his little book to put my name in, and I saw everyone else’s,” she recalls. She was stunned by how many people Bob had befriended. She became one of them—and then the following summer, she narrowly survived a small-plane crash on the west side. “When he heard the news [on TV],” she says, “he knew it was me and got on the phone right away.”
Adams had broken her back, her sternum, and several ribs and torn tendons and ligaments in her left foot. She underwent extensive rehab. Determined to run again, she began on the Monon with a walker, graduating to a cane.
“Who was with me the whole time? Bob. He could have definitely out-walked me at that point, but he stayed with me,” she says. As her pace picked up, she never left Lee behind.
Adams was at Lee’s side when his health worsened a few weeks after he turned 90. On July 18, he wrote: “I still have trouble breathing and get tired easily.” It would be one of his last entries; Lee died on September 27, 2011. His memorial service was standing-room only. “The Monon Trail served as a catalyst for bringing special people together in a way that genuinely amazes me,” Scott says.
Those friends will gather near the Indianapolis Art Center June 8 for the second-annual High 5K Walk. They’ll reminisce about Lee and dedicate a bench to the Mayor of the Monon, who always found time to sit. And listen.
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue.