Posthumous degree awarded by College of Engineering and Technology

The family of a Pitt County man who died of cancer a few months before completing his bachelor’s degree has been awarded a posthumous degree from East Carolina University.

Robert Lee Jr.

Robert Lee Jr.

Dr. David White, dean of the ECU College of Engineering and Technology, presented the diploma in honor of Robert Lee Jr. to Lee’s wife, Nancy, and their daughters, Amy and Paige, at the college’s commencement ceremony May 9. It was the first posthumous degree awarded in the college.

Robert Lee was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme, in August 2011 but continued working while taking classes online.

His life expectancy at that time was just 15 months but he was determined to fight cancer and finish his degree. “From the time I met Bob in 1977, he had shared his desire to get his BS degree from ECU,” Nancy Lee said. “His dad played football at ECU and he was a diehard Pirate.”

In October 2011, Lee had a craniotomy at Duke University Medical Center. After surgery, he began a regimen of chemotherapy pills and radiation. In May 2013, Lee had a mini stroke and while he recovered, the tumor returned. Lee continued his classes intermittently and began a clinical trial with the PVS-RIPS polio vaccine at Duke. This was one of very few options left, said Nancy Lee.

By July 2014, treatment had taken its toll, and Lee was wheelchair bound. An MRI revealed more tumor cells in November. The family decided to stop treatment and Lee died on Jan. 22.

Lee's family and Dean White are shown at the college commencement ceremony.

Lee’s family and Dean White are shown at the college commencement ceremony.

Lee lacked less than 15 hours of coursework to complete his bachelor of science in industrial technology. Family from as far away as Florida came to the departmental ceremony to celebrate the posthumous award.

“It was one of the happiest days we’ve had since Bob’s passing,” said Nancy Lee. “This was a lifelong goal of his and our entire family is extremely happy that ECU recognized this. I know Bob was up in heaven, shouting ‘Aaarggh,’ with a smile that said, ‘I did it!’”

Daughters Amy Lyerly of Holly Springs and Paige MacGovern of Willow Spring graduated from ECU. “Our girls walked every step of this journey with Bob and me,” Nancy Lee said. “We were the love of his life. He had a gentle soul and pieces of our hearts are missing and will never be the same. We miss him more each day.” A red maple tree tied with a purple and gold ribbon has been planted on the 10th Street side of the Science and Technology Building in Lee’s memory.

-by Margaret Turner