In 1974, three years out of the University of Arizona's pharmacy college, John Arredondo took a job dispensing medicines "in a little hole."

That was his description of the small pharmacy in the fledgling El Rio clinic that had opened in 1970 on the freeway frontage road near Congress Street. The pharmacy was actually in the shower room of the old Mother Higgins juvenile detention center.

The building, which today houses Pima County's Theresa Lee Clinic, wasn't much. But the idealism and dreams were sky high for Arredondo and his fellow clinic workers.

They were there to bring positive change to Tucson. They would serve on the medical front lines providing top-notch service for low-income clients.

And that is what Arredondo did for nearly 40 years - first at Mother Higgins, then the West Congress Street clinic and later at El Rio's Southwest Clinic near West Valencia and South Midvale roads.

Now 66, Arredondo, one of the longest-serving employees at El Rio Community Health Center, retired last month just as El Rio enters a new phase.

On Friday, clinic representatives, clients, community leaders and others will break ground for a new and larger facility at 839 W. Congress St. The 35-year-old Robert Gomez building, named after the longtime former director who led El Rio from near ruin to expansive growth, will be replaced by a two-story, modern clinic in the Menlo Park neighborhood.

There are three other people who work at El Rio who were hired before Arredondo: Richard Spaulding, strategic facilities director; Mary Valles, who works in medical records at the Congress Street clinic; and Jessie Reece, who holds the distinction of being the longest-serving El Rio employee.

Arredondo was wistful while we talked about his work at El Rio under a shady mesquite tree in the Santa Cruz River Park, a few blocks from his Barrio Hollywood home and not far from the Congress Street clinic and "the little hole."

"It was a family," he said of his former fellow employees.

He also felt a kinship with the many clients he served over the years. It was his commitment to the barrio grandmothers, to working parents, to young mothers, to everyone who sought his counsel.

"There is a lot of hurt out there," said Arredondo, who is married and father of four daughters.

He was there to lessen the pain and increase his clients' understanding of their medicines and maladies. He knew from his life's experiences why people needed unfettered access to high-quality medical care and effective pharmaceuticals.

Arredondo grew up in "a tin shack" in a part of Barrio El Hoyo now cemented over by the Tucson Convention Center. Later, his family moved to a house on South Convent Street downtown and then settled in a small neighborhood along an arroyo immediately north of St. Mary's Hospital near West St. Mary's and North Silverbell roads.

He graduated from Tucson High School in 1965 and entered the UA in a time of burgeoning social change in parts of Tucson. Young Chicanos were advocating for improvements to public education, health and broader services to Tucson's older neighborhoods and low-income families.

Activism and idealism were charges in the air when he entered pharmacy school just as the seeds of El Rio were being planted. He interned at El Rio while studying pharmacy, not knowing he would eventually return.

He's glad he did. He grew in his profession as El Rio expanded from a single facility to become a critical health provider in Tucson.

Today El Rio has seven pharmacies, three dental clinics, 13 medical clinics and one diagnostic lab serving more than 76,000 people a year. Many clients are low-income, but a large number are insured.

Regardless of their income level, Arredondo saw his clients as special, and he established a bond with many of them. Some of his clients asked him to stay.

That was their testament to his professionalism and dedication.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at