Congresswoman has flash from the past

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday July 15, 2002

Childhood mentors
present Mary Rhodes
Award to Barbara Lee


Barbara Lee’s past caught up with her on Saturday evening at Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center. 

Mingling with Lee’s family, friends and local progressive leaders at the congresswoman’s 56th birthday party and fundraiser were three Catholic nuns whose order was an indelible part of Lee’s childhood. 

The sisters, dressed in civilian attire, belonged to the Order of Loretto, a charitable community that operates schools in 16 U.S. states and abroad. They were on hand to award Lee the Mary Rhoades Award, named after the order’s founder who in 1811 left Boston to start a school in rural Kentucky. Since 1981 the sisters have presented the award to a woman who they believe embodies the ideals of peace and justice. 

What the sisters failed to realize when selecting Lee as this year’s recipient was that Lee was also an alumnus of their Catholic order. 

Lee, who grew up the daughter of an army officer in El Paso, Texas, attended Loretto St. Josephs from grades one through eight because segregation laws prevented her from attending the local public school. 

Lee joked with the sisters and the audience about a recent encounter she had on the east coast with members of the order. 

“In Washington a couple of months ago, several of the sisters of Loretto came into my office and they started talking to me about Mary Rhoades and the Sisters of Loretto for about 20 minutes,” Lee said. “I said ‘uh-huh’ and I realized they had no clue that I attended St. Josephs of El Paso. So I shared that with them. They were shocked.” 

Sister Kathleen Tighe presented Lee with a carving of a lighthouse, saying the gift was symbolic because “Barbara is such a light to us and such a wonderful pillar.” 

Upon accepting the carving, Lee joked, “The sisters were rough. They were tough. And they made me a rebel.” 

Tighe later said that Lee’s record was so good the choice was easy. “So many politicians cave in,” she said. “They don’t speak the truth.” 

During her brief speech, Lee moved past the subject of her lone dissenting vote on the issue of granting President George W. Bush expansive powers to execute the War on Terrorism last September and focused exclusively on current priorities. 

She mentioned her legislative efforts to fight the spread of HIV, calling it a “pandemic,” as well as the upcoming investigation of corporate accounting scandals. 

“People have lost their pensions. People have lost there jobs– this is criminal,” said Lee who added that the investigation should include members of the Bush administration. 

“When you look at the people in the White House and you look at some of those in the administration and where they come from and how they got to where they got, it’s scary,” Lee said. 

The congresswoman then urged her fellow democrats to return to their liberal past in order to energize the party base and regain power.  

“We must make sure that democrats sound like and become democrats,” Lee said “and not allow the fear of the moment to take over.” 

Fittingly, Lee was at the epicenter of the party room, laughing and joking with the approximately 100 people in attendance.