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

In 1970, a scholarship took Deval Patrick from Chicago's South Side to Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts.
Courtesy of Gov. Deval Patrick
In 1970, a scholarship took Deval Patrick from Chicago's South Side to Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts.

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:

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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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