Her family called her Aunty Tedda.
But to many people who heard her soothing voice, felt her caring hands and relied on her sage advice, Aunty Tedda was Theresa Lee, a trilingual public health nurse who worked in Tucson’s barrios and reservations.
She was a pioneering woman. Lee was born and raised on the border. She served during war. And Lee was the first ethnic minority to serve as Pima County’s public health nurse.
“She was one of those individuals who was very warm and very caring,” said grandniece Sylvia Lee, chairwoman of Pima Community College’s Governing Board. “She was very concerned with people, with those who had less.”
For years Theresa Lee’s name was attached to the county’s public health clinic on 332 S. Freeway, the I-10 frontage near West Congress Street. The building, which years before was the old Mother Higgins juvenile detention center and later the first home of El Rio Clinic, was recently razed. Her name, however, carried over to the new $2 million 10,000 square-foot Theresa Lee Public Health Center, 1493 Commerce Court, on the city’s southwest side.
Keeping Theresa Lee’s name on the clinic remains fitting given Lee’s commitment and dedication to the underserved communities that she labored in after World War II, for the Pima County Health Department from 1948 until her retirement in 1971.
Sylvia Lee said her tía was a perfect match working on the city’s south side and its edges, including Old Pascua Village near West Grant and North Oracle roads, and the new Pascua Yaqui Reservation on West Valencia Road, said Lee.
Her aunt, who lived on the south side, was fluent in English, Spanish and Chinese. She gave well-baby classes. She conducted clinics. She made home visits, going where health care was needed the most and were few if any health care workers would venture.
Aunty Tedda went quietly about her work, not seeking attention or accolades.
“She never talked about what she did. She just did it. She saw it as a calling. She didn’t see herself as a pioneer, said Sylvia Lee.
But her great-aunt did talk about her work. She talked to her niece, Lee’s mother, Sofia Lee Reynolds. Aunty Tedda recruited Lee’s mother, who also spoke Spanish, to become a public health nurse. And for 42 years, Lee’s mom, until her retirement in the late 1980s, worked the same neighborhoods, seeing the same multi-generational families as Aunty Tedda did.
“To this day I remember Tedda and my mom talking about the kids they cared for,” Lee said.
Aunty Tedda also recruited another niece, Ida Surh who worked as a operating-room nurse.
Theresa Lee, who died April 25, 1977, grew up in Nogales, Arizona, but was just as comfortable in Nogales, Sonora. Her parents, who were born in China and immigrated to Sonora, Mexico, owned a small grocery store on Morley Street, in Nogales, Arizona.
Her nephew, Mike Tom, a Tucson native living in the Los Angeles area, said Aunty Tedda and her family were deeply ingrained into the borderlands, and Mexican identity.
“They were Mexican by language and culture. At home all I heard was Spanish. Every holiday was a Mexican holiday. We ate tamales and pozole at all the holidays,” said Tom. “I thought I was Mexican.”
Tedda’s family eventually moved to Tucson, graduating from Tucson High School in 1924, according to Tom, the family’s historian. His aunt went to San Francisco, where she received her nursing training at San Francisco Hospital, finishing in 1927.
By 1937, Aunty Tedda was a certified public health nurse in California.
When war became a reality in 1942, she enlisted the following year in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in 1943. She received an officer’s commission and served in Europe and the Pacific. She left military service in 1946 as a captain, having earned several citations and medals.
Tom said his aunt, in addition to bringing health care, inspired family members, including himself. Tom graduated Tucson High School in 1960 and earned two degrees at the University of Arizona in engineering.
“She was one of the first professionals in the family. She inspired others,” he said.