Before power couples became fashionable, Bisbee had its own. Elaine and Joseph Saba were just that and their impact and influence on this community left a lasting mark. For over 60 years they were a part of just about everything in town.
Dr. Joseph Saba, Joe to his friends, was born in Guaymas Sonora Mexico in 1910 to Lebanese parents. He attended Santa Clara University followed by medical school at the University of St. Louis. After interning at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, he settled in Bisbee in 1936 practicing at the Copper Queen Dispensary and Hospital.
Elaine was born in Columbus, Nebraska in 1913 where her father was a piano builder. Free spirited and smart, she was adventurous and curious. She graduated from the University of Nebraska in Social Work and ended up in Arizona working for the WPA assisting migrant workers in the cantaloupe fields. She moved on to the U of A working with rehabilitation and resettlement of workers in the Coolidge area. She came to Bisbee with the Federal Child Welfare Program living first at the YWCA and then at the Copper Queen Hotel. There she met the town’s new young doctor who worked across Howell Avenue at the hospital. They met professionally but quickly fell in love. Joe said he took one look at her and knew he’d met his soul mate. Evidently she had the same idea and they were married June 20, 1938.
For the next half century and more the Sabas made a home, raised four children, Bill, Raul, Joseph, Jr. and Jeannie and became an integral part of the community that had evolved from mining camp to small city in less than a century. Dr. Joe was dignified, strong and confident with his patients. Like all the clinic doctors, he was on call for mining accidents. When the whistle blew he would head for the emergency room. He made house calls too, and almost to the end of his career he continued to visit his patients at their homes long after most in his profession had abandoned that bygone practice. He was a personal care practitioner before the term was coined. Dr. Saba also brought a lot of Bisbeeites into the world delivering over 2500 babies during his years at the hospital.
Elaine was energetic, curious and confident. She managed the home they built on Powell Street in Warren, looked after young Bill while Joe was serving in the South Pacific and over the years became increasingly active in Bisbee’s community and cultural life. The late Dan Davies called her a natural leader and she was that with the YWCA, Bisbee Council on Arts and Humanities, American Cancer Society, and many others. She was a driving force behind two of the town’s distinctive treasures: the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum and the Muheim Heritage House. She spearheaded fundraising efforts, organized rummage sales, and was hard to say no to when she called. A formidable organizer, she always seemed to have more energy than everyone else and she was a perfectionist making sure that things were done right.
The doctors at the Copper Queen Hospital held high profile positions in Bisbee, but Joe and Elaine were never pretentious. They were devoted to their kids and made sure they had opportunities to explore and learn about the world. As a family they travelled the globe, often with a 16mm camera along to remember what they’d seen. We watched some of those travel movies in Latin class at Bisbee High School.
Dr. Saba spent his entire professional career in Bisbee. He was involved in the design of what became known as the “new” hospital in Warren and, in 1967, was appointed Chief Surgeon. He retired from Phelps Dodge in 1975 though his patients let him go reluctantly. Elaine never retired. It seemed that as the years went by and the children were grown and making their own lives, she got busier and more involved in the community she loved.
That community took note and responded as the museum, Muheim House and other projects developed. The Sabas stayed active pursuing their interests and watching their kids succeed. Joe was an outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing and he took trips to Mexico to enjoy his hobbies. In 1988, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a mass at St. Patrick’s Church celebrated by Father Joseph Saba Jr., or Pepe as he is known to folks in town.
In 1995, after a life of dedicated service to Bisbee and more than 57 years shared with his soul mate, Dr. Joseph Saba died. To honor him, the acute care wing of the Copper Queen Community Hospital was named in his memory. It was a fitting way to remember the man who was Bisbee’s doctor and who was part of our lives for so long.
Elaine kept on keeping busy for several more years. In between organizing, directing and leading the effort for the projects she held dear, she found time to travel, see her children and grandchildren and amazingly write an autobiography. That ebullient spirit born on the Nebraska prairie never left her. She was tireless in her efforts to make sure her beloved Muheim Heritage House would receive national recognition and that it be protected and cared for. When she died in 2008, Bisbee lost another founding spirit whose personal commitment helped the town renew itself and thrive.
The hospital at Cole Avenue and Bisbee Road has changed a lot since it opened over 50 years ago, but Dr. Saba’s name and spirit live on there just as Elaine’s legacy can be felt at the Muheim House on Youngblood Hill or at the Museum in the old General Office Building. The Saba home on Powell still stands and on many weekends, Pepe comes down from Tucson to work on projects that Elaine no doubt would be overseeing if she were still here.
People have come and gone from Bisbee over the years. Some stay for awhile, move on and are forgotten. Others, like Dr. Joe and Elaine Saba, stayed for a lifetime and left their mark. In one way or another, they touched everyone in town and made it a better place to live. They were truly Bisbee’s first power couple.