As part of its ongoing Professionals on Campus series, which brings distinguished alumni back to discuss their careers, Queens College welcomed Diane Patrick, the first lady of Massachusetts, to address students Friday on the Flushing campus.
Patrick, who has been married to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick for nearly 30 years, recounted her “victim to survivor” story, covering topics from the prevention of domestic violence and her own life as an abused wife in a former marriage to the influence the college has had on her professional and personal lives.
A 1972 graduate, Patrick spoke as if she were in her own living room, opening up to her audience as if they were among her closest friends. Many in attendance were able to relate to the difficulties she faced in her life as a number of them in the Women and Work program, which empowers participants to rebuild their lives, are themselves victims of physical and emotional abuse.
Among those inspired by Patrick was Elizabeth Ann Kelly-Parks of Kew Gardens, who left believing “you can really do anything you put your mind to and you can prevail and have people believe in you. With education, you can be self-sufficient no matter what your circumstances.”
Also touched by Patrick’s words was a Queens resident named Maria, a victim of domestic violence who did not want to give her last name. “She was really empowering,” Maria said. “She gave me an example of how not to doubt myself.”
Patrick began by discussing her youth, spent growing up in a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone in “a multigenerational household,” which included her grandfather, the late Assemblyman Bertram Baker, who was the first African American elected to public office in Brooklyn.
“The young Diane wasn’t fully appreciative of my grandfather’s position,” Patrick admitted, adding, “I knew he was different.”
She entered Queens College, intending to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher. Graduating with honors and earning a degree in early childhood education, Patrick went on to teach elementary school for five years in New York City.
When the city’s financial crisis in the 1970s led to severe cuts in public resources, Patrick, unsure of what path to follow, decided to go to law school.
“I never had any great desire to be a lawyer,” she said, but eventually “I figured out that I liked it.”
She spent some time in Los Angeles, encouraged to move there with a man she had married at a young age. In retrospect, she realizes, “the move was to isolate me from my family,” and the relationship turned Patrick into an abused wife.
“It took me a long time to feel comfortable speaking publicly about this,” she admitted. “I often feel vulnerable. I’ve learned a lot along this journey.”
Patrick said she faced her husband’s “steady mental abuse,” which gradually became physical. “After a while,” she said, “I realized it was a classical abuse story.”
She said that “people look at me and think, ‘She’s charmed.’ It’s important to know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. With each one I’ve become stronger. If you build on those mistakes, you do become stronger.”
While in “a bad place in my life and marriage,” a new man came into her life. “He kind of held me up,” she said. With her first marriage over, she had not yet started having thoughts of tying the knot again.
But, she said, her new friend “made me feel I had a voice.” They eventually married and today are the parents of two grown daughters. That man was Deval Patrick.
In addition to being first lady of Massachusetts, a mother and community activist, Patrick is a practicing lawyer and a law partner in Boston.
Of her years at Queens College, she recalled, “I had the best professors. I was engaged every step of the way. My degree has carried me a very long way.”
The one thing she admits missing was “a sense of community” that comes from attending a commuter school.