Deval Laurdine Patrick was born on July 31, 1956 in Chicago where he and his elder sister, Rhonda, were raised by their mother, Emily “Mae” Wintersmith, in the home of their maternal grandparents after she was abandoned by her husband. Their absentee father, the late Pat Patrick, was a legendary jazz saxophonist who recorded and performed with everyone from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Thelonious Monk to Sun Ra.
Patrick exhibited enough promise in junior high to land a scholarship to Milton Academy, a prestigious boarding school located in Massachusetts outside Boston. From there, he went on to earn both undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard University.
He subsequently worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and then as an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under President Clinton. He also enjoyed stints as general counsel at Texaco and Coca-Cola before deciding to run for governor of Massachusetts, a position he has held since 2007. Last fall, he made history by becoming the first African American in the United States ever to be re-elected as a governor.
Patrick and his wife Diane, who is also a lawyer, have two college-age daughters, Sarah and Katherine. Here, he talks about his autobiography, “A Reason to Believe.”
I really enjoyed your autobiography on several different levels. But I should tell you right off the bat that I played in a group with your dad back in the day during my very brief jazz career.
It’s true. And I even got to record on an album with him once with the Sound Awareness Ensemble led by Robert Northern, aka Brother Ahh. Your father was a very positive influence on my life.
Oh, wow! I might have guessed that, because he paid a lot of attention to younger musicians.
Absolutely! And not just in terms of music, but as far as diet and nutrition, too.
I remember how my dad was so into herbal solutions and health food well before that stuff became popular.
I hesitated to bring this up, because in your memoir you reflect upon the pain you felt because of being neglected by him for so many years.
I remember once when I was about six, after my parents had split, an occasion when my father was passing through town because he was playing with Count Basie at the Regal Theater on the South Side of Chicago, a famous destination. He picked me up and promised to take me for ice cream after the show. But he had me waiting in the wings, and I just remember being knocked over by the sound which was too much for the ears of a little kid. And I was bored and kept asking, “Is it over yet? Can we go now?”
Another time, I was in a smoky club where he was playing with Thelonious Monk, who was probably his favorite person to play with. Even though, back then, I was frequently frustrated as a youngster who just wanted to spend time with his father, I can now appreciate that he was in the company of all these jazz legends and that he was completely dedicated to his art, albeit to the exclusion of everything else.
I was in Boston much of the same time that you were in school there, the late Seventies, a period of virulent racism.
I was indeed here then, and had an experience sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park which affected my appreciation of baseball for a long time. And a white friend with me was just as rattled. He didn’t know what to say. But Dr. King was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
Can you tell us how a teacher enriched your life?
I had a sixth-grade teacher, this incredibly self-confident young woman who took the entire class to see the first opera I’d ever seen. She also took us to see “The Sound of Music” and used it as an opportunity to instruct us about the rise of the Nazis. She taught us how to count in German from a phrasebook. She was the first person who stoked my imagination in a way which made me feel like I could be a citizen of the big, broader world. So, I invited her when I graduated from prep school and from Harvard. A great teacher who is full of excitement and love for her students can make all the difference in their lives.
You became a partner at a Boston law firm when you were 34. What advice do you have for jurists to break the glass ceiling?
That’s not an easy question. I think it’s absolutely obvious that you have to be prepared to sacrifice and to give it 100 percent, and then make it clear to everyone around that you are not indifferent about the outcome of your efforts.
Will you run for the presidency in 2016?
[Laughs] No, this is my last gig in elected office, as far as I can project ahead. Governor is the only office I’ve ever run for, and I did so in the first place because I felt that there was a contribution I could make right now in governing for the long term and by leading by values. I ran for a second term to finish the work we started. I’ll finish this out and return to the private sector, which I enjoy and miss in some ways.
To what do you attribute your election and re-election in a state with such a small minority population?
I very much believe in values-based leadership, and that the values that I believe in and try to govern by are transcendent values. They have nothing to do with race or even with political parties. Secondly, I think nothing substitutes for the power of the grassroots by showing them the courtesy of going to them where they are and inviting them to take part in the political process.
What would you encourage Americans to do to help at-risk children realize their potential?
Well, I think that’s all about investing time in them. I believe children are hungry for the company of adults. At the time I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, many families were broken, but it was still a community because back then every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block. If you messed up in front of Mrs. Jones, she would straighten you out, and then call your mother before you arrived home. What I think those adults were trying to get across to us, Kam, was that they had a stake in us. They were trying to teach us that being a member of community involves recognizing the stake that each of us has not only in our own dreams, but in our neighbors’ as well. I’m so grateful to A Better Chance that it will receive a portion of the proceeds of this book.
What has been your most important achievement as governor and what’s still on your agenda that you feel most needs to be addressed before you leave office?
Improving the quality of the schools and their ability to reach all the children who were being left behind, kids with special needs … poor kids … kids who speak English as a second language. That’s both my biggest achievement and my unfinished work, because I know both as a governor and from my own life just how transformative a great education can be.
Your father refused to sign your application to the Milton Academy. Does one lose his or her African American “identity” by attending an exclusive, predominantly-white prep school?
My father’s biggest worry was that I would lose my black identity at a place like Milton Academy. But I’ve learned over the years that identity has a whole lot less to do with location or other people’s expectations than with your own sense of self and self-confidence.
What was the hardest subject to talk about in the book, your estrangement from your father, your wife’s battle with depression or something else?
I think it was writing about Diane, which of course I wouldn’t have done without her permission. The beauty of Diane’s triumph over depression is that in going public about it, she saved a lot of lives. She gets mail confirming that daily.
What was the last book you read?
I am reading “The Warmth of Other Suns.” It’s gorgeous. It discusses all my old neighbors in Chicago.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
You know who I’m looking for? My grandfather Poppy, who was one of the most dignified and kind people I’ve ever known.
Do you ever wish you could have your anonymity back?
Sure, but one great thing about being a black man is that if you put on a hat, you can move around unnoticed.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
Sitting at the kitchen table at the age of three when my father poured a glass of milk on my sister’s head.
What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
My own impatience.
How do you get through the tough times?
Through prayer, taking time to reflect and by staying busy.
Who’s at the top of your hero list?
Nelson Mandela tied with Martin Luther King.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Persevere! Never, ever, ever give up!