Patrick O. Patterson

If there is a typical life story in this collection, mine is not it. But it is no exaggeration to say that my years as an undergraduate at Columbia, and particularly the tumultuous spring of my senior year, set me on the course I have pursued for the rest of my life.

I was often an uncommitted and disengaged student, and I cannot claim to have been a very active participant in the 1968 strike. In fact, in the years and months leading up to the strike, I tried to stay as far away as possible from anything that I viewed as “political.” I was (still am, I guess) a white boy from a conservative family in the Midwest; I grew up in Indianapolis and first set foot in New York in September 1964, when my parents dropped me off to register for the fall semester of my freshman year at Columbia. Even though I personally believed in racial equality, I didn’t march, demonstrate, or go on freedom rides; even though I was vaguely uneasy with America’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, I avoided trying to think about it too much.

By the time of my senior year, 1967-68, I had given up my plan to become a doctor (thanks to organic chemistry), and I had, for the most part, failed to take advantage of the tremendous educational opportunities Columbia offered. I was stumbling through the end of my college career – still majoring in pre-med, but with a concentration in music – without the foggiest idea of what I was going to do next. A lot of my time that year was devoted to my activities as the president of my fraternity, Nu Sigma Chi, whose membership included several football players, some Navy ROTC guys, and even a few returning Vietnam War veterans.

When the spring of 1968 rolled around and people started taking over buildings, needless to say, I was not among them. I had some sympathy with both the anti-war movement and the anti-gym protests, but I felt extremely uncomfortable with the tactics of occupying buildings and shutting down the university. Many of my friends from the fraternity were part of the Majority Coalition (I think it was called) that mounted counter-demonstrations and tried to blockade the occupied buildings. A smaller number of my friends actively supported the strike. After living through the tumult on campus for a few days, my response was to get the hell out of town. I went back to Indiana, sat out the strike for about a week, and tried to ignore the whole thing.

As it turned out, however, the “whole thing” was impossible to ignore, and it ended up profoundly affecting the rest of my life. I was still holed up in Indiana when the police riot cleared the buildings, but even at that distance, the TV and newspaper coverage, and especially the pictures of injured and bleeding students, finally did the job of “radicalizing” me (as we used to say). I returned to Columbia and sought out my friend and fraternity brother Mike Nichols, who was on the Strike Coordinating Committee – and who, sadly, died in LA some years later. Somehow (I am still not clear on the process, if there was one), Mike got me involved and I became an alternate delegate to the committee. I don’t remember what exactly I did in that capacity for the rest of the school year, but for me the very act of joining the committee was significant because it meant that I finally knew which side I was on.

And I have known ever since. Although I would not fit any but the farthest-right definition of a “radical” or a “leftist,” I have devoted much of the rest of my life to doing what I could, in my own way, to question authority and to give a voice to the powerless. After graduating (and refusing to go to the official commencement ceremony) in 1968, I avoided the draft with a medical disqualification and then was admitted to Columbia Law School in 1969. During law school, I was active in the spring 1970 student strike and participated in a number of antiwar demonstrations in New York and Washington. I was also a student in one of the first law school clinical civil rights programs in the country. After law school, I spent some time teaching civil rights and other courses at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA law schools, but primarily I have worked as a practicing civil rights lawyer. I was a legal services lawyer in Milwaukee for two years, specializing in employment discrimination law, and then I returned to New York and worked for many years as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Later, I helped establish the Legal Defense Fund’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles and worked there for several years. As an LDF lawyer, I litigated class actions and other cases challenging discrimination in employment and housing, the denial of voting rights, and police misconduct in various parts of the country and at all levels of the judicial system.

In the early 1990’s, after two failed marriages and no children, I finally found the woman I was meant to be with (actually, I had found her 18 years earlier when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, but I didn’t realize it at the time). In my personal life, as in my work as a lawyer, I have deviated from the norm in ways that were significantly influenced, I believe, by my Columbia 1968 experience.

I moved back to Milwaukee in 1991 to be with Barbara, a lawyer and human resources executive. We got married and have been together ever since. At the age of 46, I became a father; our daughter Kira, now 15, is an accomplished student, actress, singer, pianist, and softball player, among other things. Barbara has always been the primary breadwinner in our family, the one with the full-time job; and I have been the stay-at-home dad. I have managed to continue to work on major civil rights and consumer cases on a part-time basis – for example, I am currently involved in a class action in which the trial court found the Chicago Fire Department liable for racially discriminatory testing practices (now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals), as well as a case in which we succeeded in holding Milwaukee County in contempt of court for violating a consent decree that prohibited overcrowding in the county jail (now pending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court). But, since Kira’s birth, I have had the opportunity and the privilege, unlike many dads, of playing a central role in her day-to-day care and upbringing. This cultural role reversal has not always been easy for me – or for Barbara – but my presence in my daughter’s life is something that I treasure; and it is something that I don’t think I would even have been able to consider if I had not been shaken out of my acceptance of societal norms and expectations by my experiences at Columbia, and particularly by the upheaval of 1968.

So, for a white boy from a conservative family in the Midwest, I have come a long way. I have spent most of my career as a lawyer challenging authority, fighting against racial discrimination, and protecting the rights of the disenfranchised. I have taken on fulfilling roles in my personal life that run counter to traditional norms and gender stereotypes. And, this time around, I have been a vocal opponent of America’s war in Iraq from the beginning. Columbia, especially in 1968, taught me some valuable lessons about how to live my life, and I still draw on those lessons as my journey continues.

- by Patrick O. Patterson
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