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Peter Ralph Lee, 67; public health advocate focused on community

Mr. Lee developed a passion for public health after learning about problems faced by many poor African-Americans.

Mr. Lee developed a passion for public health after learning about problems faced by many poor African-Americans.

Peter Ralph Lee dedicated his life to addressing health concerns such as AIDS, teen pregnancy, hunger, and intestinal parasites.

When he moved from South Carolina to Greater Boston 15 years ago to establish community health initiatives, he settled in Cambridge, but relocated to the Fort Hill section of Roxbury after five years.

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“He said it was easy to talk liberally while living in Cambridge, but he wanted to be in a place that was diverse in color and economics,” said his friend Paul Fallon of Cambridge. “He loved the cross section of people you find in Roxbury.”

Mr. Lee, who retired last summer as director of the Massachusetts Partnership for Healthy Communities at Health Resources in Action, suffered a heart attack and a fall on Dec. 14 that caused irreparable neurological damage. He died in Brigham and Women’s Hospital Christmas morning. Mr. Lee was 67.

Before moving north, he worked for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, where he was the founder and first director of its healthy communities initiative. He established and trained more than 30 healthy communities teams around South Carolina by 1998, when he was recruited to help establish a similar program in Massachusetts.

The driving force behind the program is that the community says “this is what we need to have in order for us to be healthy,” Mr. Lee said in a 2002 interview with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“It involves leadership development, collaborative leadership, community building, and broadening the definition of health,” he said. “It brings to the table hospitals, public health, citizens, local government, and other agencies in the community. It’s a whole new setup of people talking about what we can do to help make this community a healthier place.”

After moving to Massachusetts, Mr. Lee became active in Christ Church Cambridge. He cochaired the Fort Hill Civic Association and, along with his beloved boxer, Dancer, became part of the fabric of his Roxbury neighborhood.

“The single word that describes Peter is community,” Fallon said. “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.”

Fallon added that Mr. Lee “coined the phrase, ‘A healthy community is a garden to grow people in,’ and he tended that garden with more vigor than anyone.”

Born in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. Lee was a boy when his family moved to Aiken, S.C., where his father worked at the nuclear facility now known as the Savannah River Site.

Mr. Lee’s first foray into activism came after he graduated from Aiken High School in 1963, while he was studying biology at the University of South Carolina. He volunteered with the NAACP and eventually dropped out of college in 1966 to work full time for the organization on voter registration drives.

While working with poor families in Georgia, he decided to enter an Episcopal monastery and study to become a lay brother.

At the time, he was becoming aware that he was gay. That knowledge, along with his faith and feelings about social issues, played a role in the decision to enter the monastery, he said in the 2002 interview with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“I figured that my options in the world were going to be pretty limited,” he said.

A year later, his father died. Mr. Lee, then 25, had misgivings about not completing college and re-enrolled in the University of South Carolina. It was during the Vietnam War era, and he also began attending a local Quaker Meeting, where he met Perry Carrison of Boston.

“When we first met, Peter was the most vibrant example of an iconoclast, and an adult, I had ever met,” said Carrison, who is five years younger than Mr. Lee.

Not long after they met, “his mother died and he took his inheritance and invested in an A-frame house an hour away from Columbia, on Lake Murray,” Carrison said. “No other members of my cohort had done anything even close to living that independently. So Peter got my attention, as he did others.”

Carrison said that “a signature event from that time was the party he made out of burning huge piles of brambles at his new place. On the strength of his invitation, over a hundred people showed up for ‘the trash burning,’ and a gay historian featured it in a book on the South Carolina gay history.”

At school, meanwhile, Mr. Lee developed a passion for public health after learning about the hunger and intestinal parasitic problems faced by many poor African-Americans in the southern part of South Carolina. Mr. Lee became a research assistant at the university’s office of research and focused on intestinal parasites. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, and a master’s in public health, and began working as a health educator in the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

He worked in a variety of positions in the department and rose to become deputy director of its new center for health promotion.

Mr. Lee also devoted time to AIDS care initiatives through the Episcopal Church community, to which he had returned.

Working with the South Carolina Christian Action Council, he became the founding director of the Ecumenical AIDS Ministry, which formed AIDS care teams in about 100 churches around the state.

In 1995, his work with the organization drew recognition from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest public health philanthropy. He was one of only 10 recipients that year of its community health leadership program award. The award came with a grant that Lee used to continue to fund the organization’s operations.

“I’ll tell you, the award was, in some respects, almost an embarrassment,” Lee said in 2002. “The awards ceremony was just an incredible highlight of my life.”

A service has been held for Mr. Lee, who leaves a sister, Patricia Anna of Columbia, S.C.

In retirement, Mr. Lee had more time to devote to his dog, Dancer, and the Fort Hill neighborhood, but was looking to do more.

Last fall, he responded to a posting on a community bulletin board seeking a volunteer archivist in the City of Boston’s archeology lab.

“It was a way to structure his week, get out of the apartment, be with others,” said longtime friend Paul Lewis of Boston. “He had only a few weeks of doing this, but was finding it interesting and starting to befriend a fellow volunteer.”

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