Hard-nosed political activists often have marshmallow soft hearts that reinforce their toughness. That’s the case with Lee Sides. Compassion has been her motivation from early childhood.
“When I was 5 years old,” Sides said, “my family lived in a converted coal shack about 50 feet from the railroad in Indianapolis. There was this little black girl who would come across the tracks to the white neighborhood and we would play. One day it was hot and I suggested we go swimming. She liked that idea so she went to ask her mom if she could go and I went to ask my mom.
“Imagine my mother who’s got to try to explain to a 5-year-old why she can’t take her friend swimming. I looked at my mom and said, ‘But that’s not fair.’ I knew it then. Kids know.”
Sides remembers 60 or more years ago learning what it means to stay safe as a woman in society.
“My dad taught me if I’m out at night, to carry my keys between my knuckles,” she said. “I was in middle school or high school. I grew up in the ‘50s and came to adulthood in the ‘60s. Women’s liberation started and I was ready. I have been a feminist longer than I had thought.”
Sides has lived in Roswell for almost 22 years. It was family that brought her. She never stopped her activism.
“I moved to Roswell in March of 1997,” she said. “I moved here because my mother was battling emphysema (and) needed my help and asked me to come. I moved here from South Lake Tahoe. I’ve been involved with the Democratic party almost since I got here.”
Shortly after moving to Roswell, Sides met the love of her life.
“I met Frank Sides,” she said. “He was exactly what he appeared to be. He didn’t put on any sort of front. He was Texas Cowboy, Oilfield Worker, Truck Driver. We met at the adult center. I decided to have some fun and I’d heard about a western dance going on there. It was Friday night, Nov. 7, 1997. I’d never done any kind of western dancing.
“He walked over and asked me to dance. I said I’d never learned to dance it. He grinned and said, ‘I’ll teach ya.’ I spent the whole time dancing with him, laughing my head off because I kept missing the steps and stepping on his foot and tangling up with mine. We had a blast. It was great fun.”
Frank made a good impression that evening.
“At the end of the dance, he accompanied me to my car,” she said. “He was an old-fashioned gentleman. He opened doors, pulled out chairs, he did all of the good old-fashioned respectful things.”
It didn’t take long for the lady and the gentleman to find a spark worth kindling.
“When I first started feeling serious about Frank, I was scared to death,” she said, “because I was looking at a third marriage. But I couldn’t get away from how I felt about him. What did it for me was how I felt seeing him drive off to Carlsbad where he lived with his mom and sister. By Christmas of the same year, we were unofficially engaged.”
While it can be debated if fate was involved, there’s no question it was love.
“I’d gone down to Carlsbad to visit him and meet his mom and his sister,” Sides said. “He asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I knew he didn’t have a lot of money, but I made him a list. Anything that sparkles, purple, ring size 6. I thought that was downright brazen.”
That holiday season was the beginning for Frank and Lee. It didn’t go quite as planned, though.
“He was coming down to see me on Christmas,” she said, “and I knew he had a ring for me. But that’s the year we had that really bad storm and he couldn’t get through. I cried myself to sleep because I’d wanted to get engaged on Christmas. But he came the next day when we had the road clear.”
The following years were happy ones.
“We celebrated almost 20 years,” Sides said. “He was the love of my life. He loved me completely. He never tried to control me or restrict me in any way. I took off to lobby in Santa Fe a few times. He didn’t want me to go, but he knew it was important for me, so he’d just tell me to call him when I got there. I lost him Feb. 13, 2018.”
Since losing Frank, Sides has faced tribulations with the same hard-nosed resilience she has fought for civil rights with.
“2018 was a horrible year for me,” she said. “My house is in foreclosure because when he passed, my income was cut in half. His income took care of the mortgage and some other things. The bank doesn’t care that I’m a widow of 76. I’ve decided to let it go and try to find housing that I can afford on Social Security. Because of inequity in salary that’s been allowed all these years, my Social Security isn’t as much as it should be.”
She got sick at one point, and it may have saved her life.
“Then in November,” she said, “I stepped outside to get the paper — it was cold that day. I had the most awful shivers I’d had in my life. Turns out I was sick. I had sepsis. When they were about to discharge me, they told me they had found some things to be concerned about. My right carotid artery was blocked. So I had surgery on Dec. 6. It’s healing now.”
With most of her troubles behind her, Sides is optimistic about her future.
“I’m looking forward to 2019,” she said. “This year, I’ll get out of the house. I’ll find an apartment I can afford, and I won’t have extra stress on top of mourning my husband. I don’t know how long that’ll last. Nobody can predict grief. It’s strange being a widow. I spent a lot of my life being married. Fifteen years with the first one. Fifteen years with the second one, and almost 20 with Frank. To have known true love is powerful.”
She won’t be sitting at home suffering though. Sides has plans and a vision.
“I’m going to get a whole lot more involved in local politics,” she said. “Living here in Roswell, you get a taste that everything is controlled by the Republican party, and that’s not right. There’s no equality of power here.”
After more than a half-century of fighting for equality, Sides has a message for the women coming up behind her.
“I want the young woman reading this to know how much power she has, that she doesn’t know she has,” Sides said. “This country started waking up with the #METOO movement. I’m a member of that movement.”
It’s a safe bet that Lee Sides will be fighting for equality of all kinds in Roswell for many years to come.