IRVINGTON—Robert Lee “Bob Lee” Stephens of Irvington passed away peacefully and surrounded by generations of family at his “Topside” home on December 19, 2021. He was 89 years old.
He was predeceased by his beloved wife of 63 years, Elynor “Suzy” Stephens; his eldest son, R. “Lee” Stephens Jr.; his parents, Ennolls Albert and Ann Lee Stephens; and his brothers, McDonald Lee Stephens and “E.” A. Stephens Jr.
He is survived by Lee’s wife, Jarrett M. Stephens; daughter, Elynor “Nell” S. Heneghan and her husband, Dan; son, Scott M. Stephens and his wife, Karen; son, Randolph W. Stephens; as well as 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Born in Richmond in 1932, Bob Lee was raised in New Orleans before attending Woodberry Forest School in Orange. It was during this time the family moved back to the Northern Neck when his father built and opened The Tides Inn in 1947. After Woodberry, Bob Lee graduated from the University of Virginia in 1954, where he was a member of St. Anthony Hall and a varsity letterman as a high jumper on the track team. While at UVA, Bob Lee met his beautiful bride-to-be, Suzy, at a Hall rush party that was coincidentally hosted in Irvington. They married in 1955, ages 23 and 20, at which point the couple moved to Steamboat Road to embark on the journey of entrepreneurship at The Tides Inn.
The Tides Inn thrived under Bob Lee’s stewardship, maintaining a special brand of convivial southern hospitality in partnership with its many loyal guests, whom he consulted as his “Board of Directors.” In his words, “a very proud moment in my life” was when The Tides Inn earned its first 5-Star award, then one of just seven nationwide, ultimately retaining the honor for nine straight years from 1970–1979. Humble to his core, Bob Lee liked to credit his Tides Inn successes to anyone but himself, claiming that each of his deputies knew their roles better than he did and he only stepped in if absolutely necessary. His most notable contribution was the Golden Eagle Golf Course in 1976, still considered one of the finest course designs in Virginia.
He was a leader in the hospitality industry, elected to serve as chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and president of the Southern Innkeepers Association. He also served on the board of the Virginia State Golf Association and received an honorary Doctorate in Hospitality Management from Johnson & Wales University. In 1993, Bob Lee’s career culminated in his being recognized as “Resort Executive of the Year,” the most prestigious award in the industry.
Bob Lee was committed to creating opportunity for his community. He and Suzy were instrumental in establishing Chesapeake Academy as the Northern Neck’s leading elementary school, where Bob Lee served as its inaugural president. Bob Lee also served as chairman of the board of St. Margaret’s School for nine years, and on the boards of both the Church Schools in the Diocese of Virginia and the Woodberry Forest Advisory Council. He also served as a board member for Chesapeake Financial Shares, Chesapeake Bank, Northern Neck Insurance, the Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury Foundation and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He was a devoted patron of Grace Episcopal Church on Sundays.
Bob Lee and Suzy were decades-long fixtures at the Cat Cay Yacht Club in the Bahamas. Albeit far from home, his indelible sense of humor and booming laugh endeared Bob Lee far and wide to his many friends on the island. Bob Lee was one of very few to be named Cat Cay’s “Commodore” for more than one year, a role that, in many ways, embodied his life’s work of leading through social endeavors.
A true Southern gentleman, Bob Lee’s devotion, generosity, humility, integrity, and warmth leave a lasting legacy that his large and growing family is proud to uphold.
A Celebration of Life will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, January 22, at Grace Episcopal Church in Kilmarnock, appropriate COVID-19 protocols to be followed. The family will host a reception for Bob Lee’s family and friends at “Topside,” the Stephens’ home on Steamboat Road in Irvington after the service.
In lieu of flowers, and to honor his dedication to education, the family suggests contributions to the “R. Lee Stephens Jr. ’75 Scholarship Fund” at Woodberry Forest School, 117 Woodberry Station, Woodberry Forest, VA 22989; or to Chesapeake Academy, P.O. Box 8, Irvington, VA 22480.