Barbara Lee was orphaned at a young age in the 1930s, eventually being placed with a foster mom she later called the greatest woman in the world.
Over the years, Mae Tuff fostered 21 children in her Mound home with tremendous love, support and affection. Lee thrived under her parenting, graduating from high school and becoming one of the first “welfare children” to earn a college degree.
The kindness she found in Tuff and hardworking social workers influenced her to pursue a career as a school psychologist in New York City. At 81, Lee retired a few years ago. While in good health, she has decided a portion of her estate will be donated to Hennepin County’s foster care program.
“Mae was my mom,” said Lee, who still lives in New York City. “I kiss her picture everyday.”
Last month, the County Board passed a resolution acknowledging her future gift. The amount of her donation has yet to be determined, but one-eighth of her estate will be given to the county and the rest to other organizations.
The resolution expressed its gratitude to the Tuff family for agreeing to be a foster care provider. The board also thanked Lee for her generous donation and sharing her story.
Donations after death to a specific county program are extremely unusual, said Deputy County Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis. Somebody donated to the Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit about 10 years ago, but she said she isn’t aware of anything like Lee’s gift.
“It is extremely rewarding to be reminded of the power of coming together as a community to support children to ensure they thrive,” said DeCubellis. “Ms. Lee’s plan to bequeath money to Hennepin County more than 70 years after we provided services to her is truly remarkable and a testament to the importance of the work our staff do every day. We are extremely grateful to Ms. Lee for her gift and for sharing her story.”
Lee was one of six children Tuff was caring for in 1930s and 40s. Two were her sister’s sons, and the others were children on welfare, said Lee. The county paid for her tuition, room and board at the University of Minnesota in 1957 and she earned her master’s degree two years later from the University of Chicago.
She initially studied to become a social worker “because I thought the world of them,” but later switched to psychology. She practiced in Chicago and served several smaller schools outside of New York City. The majority of her career would be spent in the city.
Carol Bay, who has known Lee for 40 years, said her friend’s childhood experiences of being loved by Tuff and of her connections with the other foster children that formed her family, provided the basis of her passion for her work with children. Lee deeply understands the complexities of children’s psychologies, and has particular awareness of the power of resilience, she said.
Lee enjoyed a lifelong passion for music, particularly opera and country music. Since early adulthood, she cultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of opera, said Bay.
Lee kept in touch with Tuff through letters and several visits back to the Twin Cities before Tuff died in 1987. Tuff never complained about anything, so all the foster kids tried to be good to her.
“I had a foster mother who cared for me more than my biological mother,” said Lee. “That’s why I wanted to give something back.”
Lee said she has had a happy life, and “believe or not, I have no gray hairs.”
“I see it stopped raining,” she said at the end of an interview last week. “Now I’m going out for a walk.”