'Lessons' From Deval Patrick: A (Not) Likely Story

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:42 pm

Even Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick himself describes the story of his life — from growing up on welfare in Chicago to thriving in business and politics — as "improbable."

That's why the word is part of the title of his new memoir, A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life. Speaking with Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, Patrick says his success stems from having supportive family and teachers — and from learning to look at life's lessons as "gifts."

An Early Abandonment

Long before he became a top executive at Texaco and Coca-Cola; years before he attended Harvard Law School and argued a Supreme Court case, Deval Patrick was a 4-year-old boy, chasing his father down the sidewalk.

That was in the 1960s, when his parents were finally splitting up for good. Patrick says that the day his father left their basement apartment on Chicago's South Side is burned into his memory.

Reading from his memoir, Patrick describes that day:

As my mother, in tears, slumped in a chair, my father stormed out of the apartment, up the stairs to the street, and was gone.

I chased after him — a four-year-old in despair — while he strolled away angrily, shouting at me, 'Go home! Go home!'

About a block down, he lost his patience, turned suddenly in a rage, and slapped me.

I sprawled out on the sidewalk, burning my palms on the pavement. From that position, I watched him walk away.

After that day, Patrick's father, jazz musician Laurdine "Pat" Patrick, was in touch with the family only sporadically.

Learning To Hope, Getting 'A Break'

Patrick grew up on welfare, going to large (and sometimes violent) public schools. But he still had hopes for a better future — thanks to his mother and his grandparents, and other adults in their neighborhood.

And he says that often, he got the love and support that he needed the most from teachers. Some of them even became his mentors.

"It was teachers who were affectionate, and outwardly expressive about that, and encouraging," Patrick says.

In 1970, when Patrick was 14, he got what he calls "a break" — a scholarship that sent him to Milton Academy, a private boarding school in Massachusetts.

It was quite a change, Patrick says. At his new school, "summer" was often used as a verb; "jacket" referred to a blazer, not the windbreaker his grandparents had bought him in Chicago. But he adjusted — and after Milton, he went on to attend Harvard, where he also went to law school.

A Thaw In A Tortured Relationship

Patrick spent a summer during law school working in Washington, D.C. And on his 25th birthday, his father happened to be in town, playing baritone saxophone with a quartet. He invited his son to the show.

"I hadn't spent a birthday with him since I was three," Patrick writes in his book.

But he went to the show — at a venue called the Pigfoot — and his father dedicated a song to him: "I Can't Get Started."

Reading a passage from his book, Patrick quotes a line from the song: "I've been around the world in a plane; I've started revolutions in Spain; the North Pole I've charted. Still, I can't get started with you."

Patrick writes that his father looked him in the eye while he played the song, "full of regret and longing, all at once."

"I gazed right back at him, knowing what he was trying to say: Life is too short to go on like this. Let's find a way to come together."

Trying To 'Give Something Back'

As a successful politician whose father was either absent or a source of conflict in his family, Patrick is not alone — both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton had similar relationships with their fathers. When asked how that experience might have affected his political career, Patrick begins his answer by saying, "I feel like I should be lying down to answer that question."

"I view the experiences that I have had — both the tough ones and the pleasant ones — as gifts," he says. "They've been full of lessons. And I've learned to be open to those lessons."

Patrick is now in his second term as Massachusetts' governor. According to state law, he could run for re-election again. But that's not his plan — the governor feels he's achieved his goal in two terms.

"This is really another manifestation, for me, of how to give something back," he says, "how to offer some ways in which we can make a better way for someone else — just as these very private lessons have made a better way for me."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The current governor of Massachusetts grew up on the Southside of Chicago. And Deval Patrick recalls a childhood in a crowded apartment, the stench of slaughterhouses - a neighborhood where, he says, someone was always hungry.

Eventually, Deval Patrick graduated from Harvard Law School, argued before the Supreme Court. He rose to become a top executive at Texaco and Coca-Cola. And now, Governor Patrick has written a memoir looking back at his young life. "A Reason to Believe" is the title, and he joined us from Boston to talk about it.

Good morning.

Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Good morning, Renee, and thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, you begin this book with the word "improbable" - that is, everything about your rise really shouldn't have happened. Tell us how you grew up, and why your later life would have been improbable.

Gov. PATRICK: Well, I grew up on welfare on the Southside of Chicago, in the '50s and '60s. I lived with my mother and sister and grandparents in their two-bedroom tenement. I went to big and broken and, you know, sometimes violent public schools. But I had people around me - in my family and other adults in the neighborhood - who gave me reasons to hope and, you know, teachers who gave me a reason to believe in a brighter future.

MONTAGNE: You write that your family - that is, your grandparents and your mother - had your best interest at heart but that - and I'm quoting you here -what I crave the most, consistent love and encouragement, I got from teachers.

Gov. PATRICK: Yes, that's really true. My grandparents and my mother were marvelous people, but they were not particularly demonstrative in their love. It was teachers who were affectionate and outwardly expressive about that, and encouraging in that way. And of course, you know, I got a break in 1970, when I was 14 years old, to go to Milton Academy in Massachusetts on scholarship. And so for me that was like, you know, a different planet.

MONTAGNE: Although it seems like it would've been tough, at least at the beginning. I like this one spot where you say: This was a place where summer was a verb.

I mean, these were rich kids.

Gov. PATRICK: That's right.

MONTAGNE: These were privileged kids who had that confidence of money.

Gov. PATRICK: Yes. It was very different. You know, it's like we had skipped the whole middle class and went right to rich. These were people with household staffs. And they had a dress code then, Renee. The boys wore jackets and ties to classes. So when the clothing list arrived at home, my grandparents splurged on a new jacket for me to wear. But a jacket on Southside of Chicago is a windbreaker. So the first day of class, when all the other boys were putting on their blue blazers and their tweed coats, I had my windbreaker. But I figured it out.

MONTAGNE: It's hard to imagine the difference, possibly, in your life if you hadn't gone to Milton. But you are contending with one issue that threads through the entire book, and that's your father. You describe what seems to be quite a searing memory of the day your father walked out of the house. You were 4 years old. Could you read that short description of what happened as he's leaving?

Gov. PATRICK: My most vivid memory of my father centers on the day he left. It was warm, and my mother was especially short with Rhonda and me that afternoon, which I attributed to the heat. I was oblivious to the mounting hostilities in our basement apartment. When my father came home, my parents started to argue, and their voices became loud and abusive. Rhonda and I were uncomfortable, and a little scared. As my mother, in tears, slumped in the chair, my father stormed out of the apartment, up the stairs to the street, and was gone. I chased after him, a 4-year-old in despair, while he strolled away angrily, shouting at me: Go home, go home, go home.

About a block down, he lost his patience, turned suddenly in a rage, and slapped me. I sprawled out on the sidewalk, burning my palms on the pavement. From that position, I watched him walk away.

MONTAGNE: I mean, at that point, at 4 - you know, you loved him.

Gov. PATRICK: Of course. We had a complicated - in some respects, tortured -relationship for a lot of years. Right after he first left, we didn't have a lot of contact with him for a number of years. He was a jazz musician. He was a baritone sax player with the Sun Ra Arkestra. He loved his music. He went through much of his life feeling unappreciated by the listening public, and also by his family. But we worked on it.

MONTAGNE: It took you, though, until you were an adult to finally forgive him.

Gov. PATRICK: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And even, I think, to understand him a little. How did you get there?

Gov. PATRICK: Well, it was a process. I write one occasion in the book, where I think we had a kind of a breakthrough. And I might just read that for you.

MONTAGNE: Sure. That would be great.

Gov. PATRICK: The summer before my third year of law school, I worked at a law firm in Washington, D.C. I turned 25 that July and on my birthday, my father happened to be playing in a local jazz club called Pigfoot, and invited me to join him. I hadn't spent a birthday with him since I was 3, but I agreed. I arrived near the end of the first set just before the break, and my father was playing the saxophone, jamming with a skilled quartet. I took my seat at a little table, and he nodded when he saw me come in.

When they finished the number, he took the microphone and said to the crowd: It's my son's birthday, and I want to play this next tune for him. And he played an old standard, "I Can't Get Started." I've been around the world in a plane, I've started revolutions in Spain, the North Pole I've charted; still, I can't get started with you.

He looked me straight in the eye while he played, long and soulfully, full of regret and longing all at once. I gazed right back at him, knowing what he was trying to say: Life is too short to go on like this. Let's find a way to come together.

MONTAGNE: I just wonder - you know, you don't have to look very far to find politicians who've risen to high office, who had absent or angry fathers. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton - both of them come to mind. Do you ever think about how this need to resolve your relationship with your father, and the fact that you did in your own way, how that played in to your succeeding in politics?

Gov. PATRICK: What a great question. I feel like I should be lying down to answer that question, Renee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. PATRICK: I view the experiences that I have had - both tough ones and the pleasant ones - as gifts. They've been full of lessons. And I've learned to be open to those lessons. And I am in politics for this episode. This is, you know, this is it. I'm in my second term. I can run again, but I'm not going to. I'm not interested in running for other office.

This is, really, another manifestation for me of how to give something back, how to offer some ways in which we can make a better way for somebody else - just as these very private lessons have made a better way for me.

MONTAGNE: Deval Patrick is the governor of Massachusetts. His memoir is called "A Reason to Believe." Thank you very much for joining us.

Gov. PATRICK: Renee, thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.