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Behind the scenes, Tampa aide made government work

Tery Sanchez worked for Rep. Elvin Martinez and Rep. Kathy Castor.
Tery Sanchez had worked in local government since shortly after she moved to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1960s. "It was not only that she was a dedicated worker," said Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda. "She just had a spirit of public service and just a big and warm heart."
Tery Sanchez had worked in local government since shortly after she moved to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1960s. "It was not only that she was a dedicated worker," said Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda. "She just had a spirit of public service and just a big and warm heart." [ Courtesy Kathy Castor ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 28

Tery Sanchez understood what a government could take away and what it could provide.

Born in Havana, Cuba, the youngest of four sisters, her family often visited Tampa, where they had a house with her father’s work as a tobacco broker. His work ended in the 1950s with the Cuban Revolution. In 1961, her family decided to seek asylum in the United States. They left behind their home, their farm, and never went back.

She soon found a new purpose here. Until her death, Sanchez worked behind the scenes in local government, answering calls, connecting people with services, working with veterans, immigrants and other residents.

It’s the government work you don’t see and might take for granted — until you need it.

Sanchez, who had cancer, died June 10 at age 79 due to complications from colorectal surgery.

“She really helped tens of thousands of people, people who may not remember her name,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. “But she changed the trajectory of their lives for the better by answering the call.”

Rep. Kathy Castor, third from left, with Tery Sanchez, fifth from left, and colleagues after Castor honored Sanchez for her work in public service.
Rep. Kathy Castor, third from left, with Tery Sanchez, fifth from left, and colleagues after Castor honored Sanchez for her work in public service. [ Courtesy Kathy Castor ]

Public defender

Sanchez started her career in the government working for former Rep. Elvin Martinez, D-Tampa.

“It was almost like Elvin was a public defender in many ways,” said Francisco Sánchez, a Tampa lawyer who previously worked as the U.S. undersecretary of commerce for trade.

The state representative often took on pro bono or low bono clients, “and Tery would treat everyone with this incredible respect and dignity no matter who the client was,” Sánchez said. “She always received everyone with a warm smile.”

Sanchez married at 20 in a dress she passed on to four girlfriends to wear in their own weddings. She and her husband had a son, Alan, who died at age 8. They divorced, and Sanchez later met Tom Wright. For 20 years, until his death in 2000, they gardened, hosted bipartisan parties and traveled around the world together.

Tery Sanchez loved to cook, hosted annual holiday parties and always made sure the interns were well-fed.
Tery Sanchez loved to cook, hosted annual holiday parties and always made sure the interns were well-fed. [ Courtesy Kathy Castor ]

Work around

Sanchez went on to work for Rep. Sara Romeo, D-Lutz. In 2002, Sanchez started working for Castor, then a Hillsborough County Commissioner. Her office included a display of trinkets friends brought Sanchez from around the world. She decorated the office door at Christmas, fed interns, hosted holiday parties and kept a world map on the wall with pins in every country she’d made contact with through the U.S. State Department while helping members of the community. The map has 101 pins.

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“She was driven by problem-solving for our neighbors,” Castor said. “It didn’t matter your background.”

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda often stopped by to see Sanchez in the mornings, sharing a cup of coffee. She would always look members of the community in the eye and tell them if and how she could help, he said.

“Very few people who work in government do that. She did layman’s work and she always treated people with the highest respect.”

Sanchez wasn’t stopped by red tape — in helping veterans get benefits or medals, or seniors with Social Security or, in 2010, helping the University of South Florida’s football team fast-track 100 passports so they could play in the International Bowl.

“When they said ‘You know, this is a difficult case and we don’t think we can help,’ that just became a challenge to her to try to tackle it a different way,” Castor said.

For Sanchez, people weren’t just a name and number, and government wasn’t about pitted partisanship and rancor. It could make people’s lives better.

Sanchez made sure it did.

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Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at khare@poynter.org.

• • •

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