Peter Ralph Lee died on Christmas morning, December 25, 2012 after suffering a heart attack and fall on December 14 that caused irreparable neurological damage.
The single word that describes Peter is community. He lived in community, he made his livelihood creating community, he thrived among community, he enveloped everyone he touched in community, and he died among community. One of his ICU nurses at Brigham & Women’s Hospital proclaimed, “I want to be part of this village!” as she witnessed the flow of caring visitors who sought Peter’s binding presence until the end.
Peter was born on March 27, 1945 in Terre Haute, Indiana, and adopted as a baby by Howard and Valerie Lee. He lived briefly in Midland, Michigan but spent most of his youth in Aiken South Carolina. Peter graduated with a BA in Biology / Chemistry and a Master of Public Health from the University of South Carolina and began his career in public health working for the State of South Carolina. Peter was founder and first director of the Healthy Communities Initiative at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) as well as the founding director of the Ecumenical AIDS Ministries of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, which formed AIDS Care Teams in almost 100 churches across the state. Peter received the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership award, in 1995 for this work.
In 1998 Peter moved to the Boston area where he became Program Development Specialist with the RWJ Community Health Leadership Program, Collaborative for Community Health. He became Director of Healthy Communities Massachusetts and Director of the Massachusetts Partnership for Healthy Communities before his retirement earlier this year.
Peter’s many civic contributions included serving on the Governing Council and Editorial Board of the national Coalition for Healthier Cities and Communities. Peter was co-guest editor (with Len Duhl, the “father” of the Healthy Cities movement) of a special supplement of the Public Health Reports on Healthy Communities in 2000. He served on the steering committee for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s long-range planning committee for Metro Boston, the steering committee for the Massachusetts Cardiovascular Health Plan, and the Boards of WalkBoston and Urban Edge. He was also active in his Roxbury neighborhood as co-chair of the Fort Hill Civic Association.
Peter was a lifelong activist, inspired by hearing Martin Luther King in a march on Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, as well as a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church. He studied at the Order of the Holy Cross but his vocation for action drew him to the public arena. He was an active member of Christ Church Cambridge throughout his years in Boston.
Peter had a lifelong interest in Cuba, where his parents met and lived before he was born. Though he never lived there, he was able to visit. He bore witness to the economic challenges facing that country but also to the beauty of its people, their culture and their tightly knit community.
Peter’s life cannot be measured by titles and achievements alone, for he touched as many through his generous spirit and equanimity as through his official actions. He coined the phrase, “A healthy community is a garden to grow people in” and he tended that garden with more vigor than anyone.
Peter understood that the strength of community lay not only in what we share in common, but also in capitalizing on the unique strengths of each individual. As his neighbor Sachielle Samedi wrote, “When we first met I was black, you were white; I was Haitian, you were American; I was 34 years old, you were 62; I was straight, you were gay; I was blunt, you were subtle; I had a northerner’s brashness, you had a southerner’s sensibility; I had an eight pound Yorkie, you had a sixty pound Boxer. Yet, despite these superficial differences, we were the best of friends.”
In retirement, Peter remained involved in community. This past fall Peter began a volunteer position as archivist in the archeology lab of the City of Boston. The work energized him with the same sense of purpose he savored throughout his life.
Peter is survived by his gentle sister Pat, his beloved dog Dancer, and the thousands of souls he touched during his time on this earth. Memorial service plans, coordinated through Lawler Funeral Home, are not finalized. We thank Peter for a life so well lived, and for embracing us as part of his community.
Rest in peace, Peter. Thanks to Paul Fallon for writing this article about our friend.