Church, CHEER and playing cowboy among Sussex sheriff’s passions

SEAFORD — As sheriff of Sussex County, Robert T. Lee proudly wears the badge over his heart.

Deep in his heart is faith and church.

He and wife Lori have been married for 10 years.

“We met while we were attending Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Reliance, singing on the praise team,” Mr. Lee recalls.

They now attend Crossroad Community Church.

Sussex County Sheriff Robert T. Lee, left, and Jim “Doc in the Box” Plastine stand guard over jailbird Crissy Hanzer of Peach Tree Acres Assisting Living during the fun-filled lockup event at CHEER’s 2017 Frontier Festival.

“Church for us is No. 1,” said Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee was born at the Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre, Pa., a little borough that for many decades was the shop-yard hub for the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

He was raised on a 100-cattle Holstein dairy farm in Cadis, Pa., which is near Warren Center, which on the metropolis map isn’t all that far from Binghamton or Scranton.

He graduated in 1971 from Northeast Bradford High School, home of the proud Panthers. There, he played soccer and was in track.

Ms. Lee works at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital as assistant vice president of nursing.

Together, the couple have six children. Mr. Lee’s two sons, Jason and Joshua, have served in the U.S. Marines. Daughter Rachel resides in Lexington, Ky. Ms. Lee’s daughter resides in Bishopville, Md., and her two sons live in South Carolina.

They have two grand-children.

After high school graduation, Mr. Lee attended Lehigh County College. After two years he transferred to American University in Washington D.C. He graduated from American in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in administration of justice.

In 2014, Mr. Lee was elected sheriff. He defeated incumbent Jeff Christopher in the Republican primary, then topped Democratic challenger Roland “Beau” Gooch in the general election. Now 64, he plans to seek re-election in the 2018 election.

Mr. Lee began his long career in law enforcement with the Metro Transit Police in Washington. That was followed by a 25-year stint with the city of Seaford Police Department and then a 10-year stint with the Delaware Attorney General’s Office. With Seaford DP he was part of the original motorcycle unit.

Mr. and Ms. Lee reside outside of Seaford in their little ponderosa off Briarhook Road. The long and winding stone road leading to their home is named Shotgun Alley.

That’s no coincidence. Mr. Lee likes guns, is an avid hunter and outdoorsman, loads his own ammunition and loves to play cowboy.

Robert T. Lee stands next to his unique gift from family that salutes his role as Sussex County Sheriff.

He’s a member of two cowboy shooting organizations: Paden’s Posse based in Bridgeville and the Eastern Shore Renegades out of Sudlersville, MD.

“And he dresses like Wyatt Earp,” said Ms. Lee. “All the time you see him in that sheriff garb, that’s what he wears.”

Two Colt .45s, a Stoeger Coach Double Barrel shotgun and a Henry 44-40 lever action rifle are “old west” firearms in his collection.

He has more than one cowboy hat, several pair of boots and “many vests,” said Mr. Lee. “I have everything. The only thing is don’t have is a horse!”

On walls in their home and garage are numerous buck trophies from his hunting adventures. He recalls hunting as a schoolboy in rural Pennsylvania where there was no school for a day during buck season.

“I’ve been a deer hunter since I was 12 years old. And people laugh, I always tell them that if you didn’t shoot a buck deer, the girls didn’t talk to you,” said Mr. Lee. “It was an important holiday; deer season, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Your badge of courage was if you took off the second day and got the pink slip for absenteeism, which was unexcused, you were a big deal. I never got to do that pink slip until my senior year … and that’s only because I hadn’t gotten a deer. I got a deer the second day.”

This week’s People to Meet: Robert T. Lee.

Your career in law enforcement?

“I graduated (from American) and started the following week with the Metro Transit Police in Washington DC. And as all Washingtonians, we all came to the beach on the weekends. In October of 1977, I got accepted at Seaford Police Department. I retired from Seaford PD after 25 years in 2002.”

“I took off Friday and started with the Attorney General’s Office the following Monday as a state detective, someone that picks up fugitives all over the country for Delaware. I traveled all over the United States plus Puerto Rico. I did that for 10 years. I was hired by Jane Brady when she was Attorney General. That ended in 2012. I took the next year off and in all of this time when I was with Seaford police, I raised Perdue chickens as a second employment. Then I just started doing grain farming when I retired.”

“Then February came and there wasn’t a whole lot to do and I was approached and asked to run for sheriff.”

Your decision to run for sheriff?

“I thought that the sheriff should do the job that the constitution provided for them to do. There were other distractions that took away from the integrity of the office as far as I was concerned.”

Your passion for law and justice?

“I think I have always been interested in justice. And justice doesn’t always mean someone is arrested and prosecuted. Justice is making sure that the right person is responsible for what actions they took.”

What’s life like on your little ponderosa?

“We have 15 acres here and we lease another 10 acres. Our land backs up to Lori’s mother’s land. I do several fields of her mother’s. I do corn; corn for deer hunters. We raise bobwhite quail, approximately 1,000 a year. Some of them go to hunters. Some of them go for trying to restart the habitat of quail in this area. We started with pheasants, but we’ve been doing this for about 10 years.”

Your career in the poultry business?

“I retired from chickens in 2002. We were always successful doing chickens until they brought in the newer houses, which had better insulation. You are always compared to the next person; if your production is cheaper than my production then my pay scale was less than yours. I can have bigger chickens but if you used a whole lot less fuel than I did, then you become higher up and your pay-scale is higher than mine. It got to the point where older houses weren’t competitive with the newer houses.”

Sussex County Sheriff Robert Lee and Deputy Sheriff Eric Swanson escort Ruth Bear to The Slammer at Frontier Festival.

The scoop on cowboy shooting?

“I’m a year and a half into cowboy shooting. And it is so much different than the police combat-type shooting I was much more used to. I was on the SWAT team in Seaford. I shot on the Governor’s 20 Team, for one year. I made the Governor’s 20 back in like 1979, a long time ago.”

“But this is different. It’s a civilian type, so it took a lot to get used to as far as the safety concerns that they had. It’s very challenging. I am just working my way up the ranks, now. Part of it is marksmanship but a lot of it is speed and transition. What you are basically doing is you’ll have a scenario and you have to shoot at the way the scenario is written out. It might be 2-2-2-2-2 all the way through for 10 rounds and then you have to do the same type of pattern with pistols. He next one might not be like that, it might be 2-3-3-2. It’s a mind-challenging type of thing. You will start probably with a rifle and then you put that one down and pick up the shotgun, and you may do four to six rounds with a shotgun, or may move and then do the shotgun. It’s all how you transition. It’s how you shoot and then move, load, and reload — again in a safe manner.”

“It’s a hoot. It isn’t when you do it wrong. I’ve won a lot of awards for clean shoots. But it aggravates you when you don’t do it right.”

“You don’t win anything, except maybe something that’s a piece of plastic. But it’s the comradeship that you get. And the fun of it. And you get to dress up, whatever your style is. Mine has always been Wyatt Earp. That’s who I grew up with: Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon, basically those two. I think they were probably instrumental in saying justice is something that we should strive for.”

What’s up at the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office these days?

“We have three ladies inside, in administration: Tina Timmons, Amy Jones and Donna Pusey. My Chief Deputy is Eric Swanson, a former sheriff; and deputies Benny Gordy, Pat Alegro Smith and a newcomer part-time, Thomas Lee, who was hired Jan. 2, 2018.”

“We’re probably delivering about 12,000 legal documents, also. The legal documents are everything from criminal subpoenas to wage attachments to lawsuits. Everything that involves anything from civil attorneys, your Department of Justice and the public defenders’ office.”

As a young buck back in Pennsylvania, you were into ice racing?

“We’d buy cars for $15. Every farmer had a junk area – every farmer. We’d go to the junk piles and get their tires, put tubes in them and do ice racing around the ponds between two barrels. We loved doing that. That was good training to drive on the ice.”

Sussex County Sheriff Robert Lee, right, helps State Rep. Dave Wilson with his hot meal pick-up for delivery during CHEER’s Operation Christmas CHEER on Christmas Day.

Other passions?

“I love being part of CHEER. CHEER is a great organization. It’s great people trying to help people that can’t do for themselves. It keeps people from being in nursing homes.”

“And farming; you know lots of John Deere tractors.”

Closing thoughts?

“If you write our lives down, church would be No. 1. Church, not as pew-sitters, but church as being involved. Lori’s is involved now with the cleaning. They have satellite groups that volunteer to clean that massive complex each week. She is part of that. It’s volunteerism that we are involved in. We wanted to be in the musical program. We knew that they already had a large volume of talent. We believe in prayer and we said, ‘Well, we are going pray about this.’ We prayed about this and the next thing you know Pastor Betts is calling us for an audition.”

“For me, to do an audition in singing, I would have rather been in a dark room with a man with a gun that wanted to shoot me than to stand there beside a piano and audition. But I did. And we passed. We’re going to fit in somewhere. That’s exciting for us. We’re trying to get in more and more of their programs. They planted trees back in the fall; we were involved in that. They had a renewing vows one weekend and we were involved in that. Church and music are very much a part of the two of us.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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