SAN ANTONIO — She was born in a small town, but a desire to see the world gave her a nursing career and a front row seat to World War II.
Mary Elizabeth Ullrich Lee, known to friends and family as "Betty," was the youngest in a family of eight kids. Born in 1922, she finished high school and went on to pursue higher education in a time when such a thing was rare for young women, especially those raised in the country.
"Some of her other siblings had quit school to work because times were so hard," said Barbara Sessa, the town clerk and Mrs. Lee's niece.
Mrs. Lee died Wednesday at age 90. She had been healthy most of her life, but over the past couple of years had begun having medical problems.
"She was so friendly," said her nephew, Paul Hermann, who recalled dinners of home-cooked vegetables grown at the farm owned by Mrs. Lee and her husband, Ralph. "She would wait until we got there and pick the corn and then take it to him and he'd saute it in a pan. It was the best corn you ever had."
The daughter of German immigrants who settled in San Antonio, Mrs. Lee grew up in a poor farming family. Once, while driving to Pennsylvania for her brother's wedding, her father accidentally hit a chicken in the road. Not wanting to waste food, they checked into a tourist court and cooked the bird.
She went to nursing school in Gadsden, Ala. and earned a degree as a registered nurse in 1943. A yearning to see what lay beyond her hometown prompted her to join the Army. After training in several locations, she was sent to Moji, Japan, just after the United States had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Half a world away from home, she found herself caring for a patient from Dade City, though she had not known him growing up. Ralph Lee suffered from pneumonia for three months.
They struck up a friendship. After he was released, he became the mess sergeant for the hospital. She was an officer, and he was enlisted, so fraternization was forbidden. The two had to sneak off to the city and or to quiet hillside cemeteries, where they discovered their mutual interest in gardening. They fell in love and began planning a future in Florida.
Later Betty would joke about their courtship, saying "I met Ralph in bed and didn't see him with clothes on for three months."
The couple married shortly after they left the Army and returned to Pasco County.
"She wasn't a clown, but she was always witty," Sessa said.
Mrs. Lee worked for two San Antonio doctors. During that time, she had two sons and juggled a career and motherhood before that became the norm.
"I don't know how she did all that she did raising her kids, helping Uncle Ralph, and working as a nurse at the same time," her niece, Margaret Beaumont, wrote in the funeral home guest book.
Mrs. Lee was well known in the community as there were few doctors in the area.
"Everybody went to those doctors," Sessa said.
In the mid-1960s they moved to Homosassa, where Ralph Lee had a job at the Crystal River power plant.
When she wasn't working, Mrs. Lee loved to garden. She also was eager to share anything she learned, whether it was how to freeze strawberries more efficiently or process tomatoes.
"She wanted everybody to benefit from her awareness," Sessa said.
After her husband died in 1993, she spent time traveling, and cruised to Hawaii, the Panama Canal and Alaska.
Family members said she never lost her ability to make others feel special.
"You could tell her anything, and she always kept it in confidence," recalled Sessa. "She was never preachy or judgmental. She would listen and gently guide you."
The family gathered for a huge 90th birthday bash during the summer. They read Mrs. Lee's life story and showed photos on a big screen. Everyone took home a CD of snapshots.
Nephew Paul Hermann talked with Mrs. Lee in her last days.
"They held the phone up to her ear," he said. "I told her when she got up there (to heaven) to think about us and pray for us down here.
"I promised her I was not going to cry. But I didn't make it."