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Deval Patrick: The double veil of an improbable life

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Deval Patrick: The double veil of an improbable life
Gov. Deval Patrick greets Mmamoon and Mariama O’Neill of Byfield after his portrait unveiling in front of the the State House Grand Staircase on Jan. 4. (Photo: Don West)

Deval Laurdine Patrick touched down in the Bay State during the Nixon administration, bearing an Afro and an acute case of homesickness for the Chicago family he’d left behind to attend Milton Academy as a full scholarship student.

He wasn’t carrying a loaf of bread like the penniless Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia from Boston, but, like the colonial printer, was a stranger in a strange land, an outlier harboring ambition who traded on his talents to put an astonishing stamp on his adopted state.

The odds that a black child from the Midwest, raised on welfare and taught in schools scarred by violence, would successfully negotiate the racial landmines of busing-era Boston to become the Commonwealth’s chief executive were impossibly long, which Patrick acknowledges in his moving memoir, A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life.

As the two-term chief executive prepared to leave office, he sat down with the Banner for a wide-ranging discussion about a career that took him from the South Side to the Corner Office, with stops in between at Harvard, white-shoe law firms, Fortune 500 corporate suites, and the U.S. Justice Department.

Raised by a single mother in his grandparents’ home, Patrick was plucked out of the Chicago public schools in 1970 by “A Better Chance,” an initiative formed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement to send promising black students to leading U.S. prep schools. The shaded greens and burnished privilege of New England private school life were worlds away from the shadows of the Robert Taylor Homes project where the 14-year-old future governor began life’s journey.

Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008 announcing federal stimulus funding for repairing the 411 structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts.

Sitting beneath an oil portrait of Civil War-era Gov. John Albion Andrew, who raised the famed all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Patrick laughed about Milton Academy pictures showing him with a bouffant ’fro. “I got it in the first place not because it was fashionable, but because I didn’t know how to get a haircut and I didn’t know who to ask,” said.

When he did walk off campus, “I was invariably stopped by the Milton police. Invariably,” he repeated, his voice trailing off. “All those issues are back in the news, but they haven’t gone away in people’s lives.” Years later, Patrick would address racial profiling during a stint as head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and the issue would recur time and again throughout his term in office as the Bay State’s first African American governor.

In some ways a Golden Child of affirmative action — in the best sense of the phrase before it became a wedge issue and the subject of bitter attacks — Patrick rose higher and faster and achieved more than his peers, both black and white, because hard work, discipline and intelligence met more opportunity than was available among the gangs on Wabash Avenue.

Offering advice to the young, Patrick often quotes his grandmother: “Hope for the best and work for it.” But he had something else — a deeply held belief in human dignity, which translated into empathy; and an unusual ability to live the “double veil,” without rancor, described by W.E.B. DuBois in Souls of Black Folk as the legacy of living in two worlds, one black, one white.

Patrick’s model for “double consciousness” was his grandfather Reynolds Wintersmith, whose life was spent shuttling back and forth between his South Side home and the bank where he swept floors for over 50 years.

“The chairman of the bank came to his memorial service and said that if he had lived in another time, he would have retired as chairman of that bank. He was the person who taught me the dignity in every human being — to look for it, to see it, and to presume it’s there,” said Patrick.

Wintersmith’s own calm dignity, said Patrick, taught him patience and perseverance, qualities that he drew upon as the racial politics of Boston boiled over with the start of busing as he began his freshman year at Harvard in 1974.

Though somewhat sheltered from the tensions across the river, Harvard was not a seamlessly integrated institution. Patrick managed to move easily between the many sub-cultures of Harvard life, joining the exclusive Fly Club, living at Dunster House and becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.

Patrick entered Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, representing poor clients in the courts. He worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund after graduation and joined the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow, where he made partner by age 34.

Just a few years later, a defendant he’d sued in a civil rights case was sitting in the White House. That defendant, former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, harboring no hard feelings, nominated Patrick to head up the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department, where he took on police misconduct cases and oversaw an investigation into a series of arson fires at black churches across the South.

Patrick left Washington in 1997 to return to a lucrative private law practice that took him to the top ranks of multi-national corporations like Texaco and Coca-Cola.

While the transformation of a bright, shy student into a successful corporate lawyer would more than fill out a conventional biography, Patrick’s life took an even more dramatic twist when he turned to politics.

As a first-time candidate without deep roots in the culture of Boston politics, Patrick’s entrée was tentative and cautious, marked by a series of meetings with more experienced hands. Patrick began appearing on the margins of political events, introducing himself with the thought of entering the 2006 Democratic primary for governor after Republican Gov. Mitt Romney made it clear he was focused on the White House.

The presumptive nominee, Attorney General Tom Reilly, enjoyed a huge advantage in name recognition, fundraising base and political support, but proved deficient in other skills, namely oratory and instincts for reading the public pulse — areas where the less-seasoned corporate lawyer would excel in the campaign.

Patrick’s personal story of success over overwhelming odds was compelling, but so was his delivery, with touches of church rhetoric, like “child of God,” peppered among his policy prescriptions. He also created the “hope and change” template. His image, like that of Barack Obama two years later, personified that narrative, holding out the promise that the first black governor in the history of the Commonwealth would govern, like he campaigned, in a different way, uplifting the polity.

“There were certainly lots of people who, when I ran eight years ago, said all the stuff they said out loud to me about being a long shot, doesn’t know anybody, has no name recognition,” said Patrick. “And then there was the stuff they said when I wasn’t present — about whether the Commonwealth was ready for a black governor or whether a black candidate could win in a state where the black population was so proportionately small.”

But over the course of two successful campaigns for governor, his message of “Together We Can” resonated, especially among the outsiders who had ceased believing in the mantra of change. “People told me stories about getting up out of nursing homes to vote, walking down flights of stairs when elevators didn’t work, bringing their little boys and girls into the voting booth — black kids and kids of color. That stuff is meaningful. And I hope it lasts,” he said.

As Patrick takes his final walk down the State House steps, he can look back on a record of successfully shepherding the Massachusetts economy through the 2008 financial meltdown, increasing diversity in the courts and executive suites and improving education and infrastructure. Detractors will point to legislative misfires and management lapses, and there is little doubt that incoming Gov. Charlie Baker will make the most of laying budgetary challenges at his predecessor’s doorstep.

Nor is there little doubt that history will view Patrick’s administration as a watershed moment in Massachusetts politics, when a bright kid from the South Side stormed Beacon Hill and, against all odds, seized the reins of power.

Patrick’s departure this week from the political stage — at least for now — has been tempered by the passing of former U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke III, a Republican who, like Patrick and President Obama, learned how to bridge divides and thrive in different worlds.

The first African American elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate, Brooke was acutely aware of the symbolism of his rise as well as the challenge — to acknowledge the advance his election represented while maintaining no illusions that his personal achievement lessened the need for broader social change to benefit all Americans, black and white. To maintain, in other words, “the double veil.”

“The challenge for us, in this country, when it comes to race, is acknowledging the incredible progress that has been made over the last 40 years and at the same time the progress that has yet to be made,” Patrick said.

“And I think both of those observations are worthy and important. We are not the same country we were. We are not the same Commonwealth we were. I think it is really important for the Commonwealth and for the country to believe again that we are capable of big things. The great things we’ve done, the great things that we celebrate nationally are because of a willingness to think big, to reach beyond our grasp and to turn to each other and reach together.”