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St. Paul's Prodigy: The Robin Lee Story

Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library

"It takes nerve and stamina to be a good figure skater." - Robin Lee, "Jamestown Evening Journal", January 12, 1939

The only child of Martha (Schroeder) and Ayner Robert 'A.R.' Lee, Robin Huntington Lee was born December 2, 1919 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He grew up on St. Anthony Avenue, a stone's throw from Concordia University. His father was a telegraph operator with the Northern Pacific railroad who moonlighted as a figure skating instructor and salesman for the Olympiad Skate Company. His Norwegian born grandfather Knut was a machine operator in a shoe factory. His uncle Arthur was a well-known sculptor who travelled abroad on a Guggenheim fellowship. After his mother died when he was six following a long illness, his father decided to make him "a little sportsman".

Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

As a boy, blonde-haired, blue eyed Robin golfed, swam, played tennis and attended Mattock Grammar School. He started skating at the age of four on a St. Paul pond wearing a pair of double runners. In no time, the double runners were shelved in favour of a pair of Olympiad skates. Coached by his 'pop', also an accomplished skater and mentored by Chris Christenson and A.C. Bennett, Robin was a fast learner on the ice despite his diminutive size. He later recalled, "I never would have been a champion at all if if hadn't been for Dad. Until I was ten I had no ideas about being a figure skater. But Dad had the ideas and they were serious." Some of Robin's father's ideas were rather unorthodox. In "Skating" magazine in 1996, Robin remembered, "My father took me secretly out on a frozen lake with a couple of nails and a piece of light rope. We drew circles onto the ice. I tried to trace them (it was so windy that I was blown all over the place and we gave up on it). It was the forerunner of the 'scribe' but we didn't know that at the time."

Quoted in "Skating" magazine, Chris Christenson remarked, "He has a rare ability for a boy of his age, being proficient in many sports. He won the Junior Golf Championship of St. Paul... and took second prize in a swimming meet, competing against boys twice is size. He was picked as the best boy singer from a number of different schools to sing at a teachers' convention here. He is also a very good piano player but does not take much interest in either the piano or singing. All these activities have not interfered with his school work for he passes his examinations with better than average marks. He is a modest young man, and his athletic ability has not spoiled him as it does so many young people. He has confidence in his own powers and lots of determination to win."

Left: Audrey Peppe and Robin Lee in 1931. Right: Robin Lee holding a golf club. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Robin's father told reporters, "Get 'em while they're young and start teaching 'em: that's the way to make a champion. Experts have told me my boy is one in a million. Maybe he'll get there eventually if he keeps at it. He likes skating - likes it about as much as golf. I picked out those sports for him because a person can get a lot of fun out of them, and they are the two sports that wear best: you can last a long time in each, and the sooner you start in 'em the better."

Right photo courtesy Hennepin County Library

Unlike many 'hothouse' skaters who weren't accustomed to skating outside, Robin had the advantage of much experience skating outdoors in The Twin Cities, as well as in indoor rinks with less than pleasant conditions. His future student Dorothy Snell recalled, "Though under cover and protected from wind or snow, indoor rinks in the Twin Cities lacked equipment until the mid-thirties to freeze water artificially. The cold in these places was outrageous. Heavily wrapped against it, one was too constricted to move well; lightly wrapped and one was too cold. I remember once dashing out to the center of the rink amongst the circling long bladers and carelessly brushing up against one of them. Unhurt, we both went on skating. Later in the warming room for a routine count of fingers and toes, I discovered I had been cut because as my skin approached normal temperature, a small wound in my leg began to bleed... While free skating, we could warm up enough to overcome the inhibiting nature of cold muscles, but school figures, executed with far less exertion and pace, were not comfortably practiced for long at low temperatures. On the other hand, skating on natural ice may have offered training advantage in that the skater had to work harder in cold temperatures to overcome the resistance to the blades than was necessary on artificial ice in air temperatures of 350-400 F. where a moistened surface reduced resistance."

At the age of eleven, Robin claimed the Minnesota state title in Mankato despite abysmal outdoor ice conditions, the first such championship held in the Midwest under USFSA rules. The following year, he became the youngest skater in history to win the U.S. junior title. All of his competitors were in their twenties and thirties.

Sonja Henie and Robin Lee. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Later that year, twelve year old Robin had the valuable experience of competing in the World Championships in Montreal. His father couldn't make the trip, so he travelled by train alone, with one of his father's friends keeping an eye on him. He placed dead last but showed great promise for the future.

Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

At thirteen, Robin struck gold at the first Midwestern Championships in St. Louis and finished third at both the U.S. and North American Championships. The next year, he took the Middle Atlantic senior title and finished second in the senior men's event at the U.S. Championships by less than a point.

Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library

Robin won his first of five consecutive U.S. senior men's titles in 1935 at the age of fifteen, unseating defending Champion Roger Turner, who was more than twice his age. He made history as the youngest U.S. Champion in history and as the first man to unseat a seven time U.S. Champion. That winter, he also finished second at the North American Championships.

Robin Lee and Maribel Vinson Owen. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Robin was praised by Maribel Vinson Owen for his especially well done mazurka, walley and loop jumps. He had also had a Lutz, Axel, double Salchow and double loop in his repertoire and came up with his own free skating choreography, skating as Robin Hood and performing a German slap dance. His father once described him as "a funny kid. Right now I think he'd rather be over there helping those fellows smooth the ice with those trick scrapers. Always into something new... Maybe he doesn't take a bath just as often as he might, because I don't keep after him. Maybe he doesn't eat his spinach or get as many spankings as he might - but he's getting the big things."

A.R. and Robin Lee. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Prior to winning his first U.S. senior men's title, Robin had left Minnesota to train in New York under World Champion Willy Böckl, first living with his uncle in lower Manhattan and attending a public school and later moving in with his aunt and transferring to Erasmus High School. 

Robin Lee. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Robin's move east resulted in heaps of publicity, largely due to his age and likability. When he appeared on "The Kate Smith Hour", The First Lady Of American Radio introduced him by saying, "He has that odd but romantic name of Robin." He answered, "It seems to me that the way you sing, so nicely, your name should be 'Robin' instead of mine."

Right photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Robin's results at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games and World Championships - twelfth and eighth - were somewhat disappointing, but he missed valuable training time in the lead-up to his trip to Europe due to a serious case of 'the grippe' (the flu). In an interview in "Skating" magazine in 1991, he recalled, "I remember seeing Hitler and Goering in the stands, and having to squeeze up against buildings in Garmisch while tanks and groups of German soldiers came up narrow alleys... The wind snow and ice conditions kept me down to twelfth... place. Luck and weather were important back in the days of outdoor ice. You could start a figure at the right speed, and a gust of wind might bring you to a complete stop."

Left: Robin Lee and Joan Tozzer at the 1938 U.S. Championships. Right: Robin Lee. Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

An injury prevented Robin from vying for the 1937 North American title, but he did manage to reclaim the silver at the event in 1939 and win the Midwestern men's title in 1937, 1938 and 1939. At this point in his career, he was training in Chicago with Norval Baptie and Karl Schäfer, the winner of the 1936 Winter Olympics who had since turned professional. He mastered three different double jumps: the Salchow, toe-loop and loop.

Left: Arthur Vaughn Jr., Jane Vaughn Sullivan, Gene Turner, Donna Atwood and Robin Lee. Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide". Right: Belita Jepson-Turner and Robin Lee.

Robin was named to the 1940 Olympic team, but when the Games were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. He decided to turn professional and accept an offer teaching skating at the Winnipeg Winter Club. When his contract at the Manitoba club ended, he toured with the Ice Capades alongside Belita Jepson-Turner and Megan and Phil Taylor. 

A.R. and Robin Lee. Photo courtesy Hennepin County Library.

Try as he might, Robin couldn't escape the press in 1942, when his then sixty year old father was arrested for second degree assault after stabbing his twenty-nine year old housekeeper Elizabeth Birch multiple times in his St. Paul apartment during an argument. It was just months after Robin had married his sweetheart, an Ice Capades skater named Betty Brown.

Top: Robin Lee and Bobby Specht in the military. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine. Bottom: Robin Lee's draft card.

After three years of service as a Boatswain's Mate on a destroyer in the United States Navy, Robin was discharged from the military when the ship that he was on hit a reef off of Okinawa, Japan. 

John Nightingale, Robin Lee and Janet Gerhauser. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Robin returned to America and joined the cast of the Ice Cycles in 1946. In an era when many men still skated in blacks, whites and greys, Robin performed in a scarlet jacket and azure blue tie. He stopped performing in the late forties, became a father and stepfather and embarked on a lengthy career teaching skating in Chicago and the Twin Cities. Among his students were Janet Gerhauser and John Nightingale, Olympians in 1952.

Photo courtesy Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame

In 1963, Robin was inducted into the Minnesota Sports Hall Of Fame. He retired from coaching in 1991 and was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1995. He passed away of bone cancer on October 8, 1997 in Minneapolis at the age of seventy-seven.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":