Most political figures limp across the finish line after years in the public eye.
That could be said of Deval Patrick, who seems ready to move on. But his wife, Diane, the self-described reluctant first lady, is leaving with a spring in her step. She is, by all accounts, in a completely different place from where she started eight years ago.
At 63, she not only has come to terms with being a political wife, but she has done it on her own terms. She didn’t quit her high-powered job as a partner at Ropes & Gray; instead, she took on more responsibility at the venerable Boston law firm.
Most significant is that this fiercely private first lady — who so loathed life in the political fishbowl that she suffered a bout of depression — found it within herself to open up about being abused in her first marriage. Speaking out about spousal abuse would become Diane Patrick’s platform, what she calls her proudest achievement in office. She found purpose in sharing her painful story, inspiring countless others to get help.
“She has forever changed the landscape in Massachusetts that enables survivors to come forward,” said Debra Robbin, interim executive director of Jane Doe Inc., a coalition of groups against sexual assault and domestic violence.
“Having someone who is the first lady of the Commonwealth be such an incredible role model for survivors, for women of color, for the advocacy community has been just a profound experience,” Robbin said.
What made Patrick a powerful advocate is that she is the last person anyone would think could be in trouble. She got that and seized on it. Her message was simple: Abuse does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone, and it happened to her in the early 1980s before she met Deval Patrick.
Back then, she was a young, promising lawyer in Los Angeles with a strong support network of friends and family. But at night, she was terrorized by a husband who brandished a gun and threatened her life.
“But for the grace of God, all of us could be among the victims who find themselves in frightening and often paralyzing abusive circumstances,” Diane Patrick said last year at a Jane Doe event where she was being honored.
“You don’t see it coming — or maybe you don’t want to,” she explained. “It is a slow and destabilizing and degrading process of breaking down your self-confidence, your self-esteem, and your self-worth. And before you realize what’s happened, you’ve become powerless, you’ve become voiceless, and you’ve become diminished. Truly in every sense of the word you are broken.”
Toward the end of her first marriage, she struck up a friendship with Deval Patrick, who helped her through those difficult times. The two married after she finally divorced her husband in 1984.
“The greatest accomplishment for me has been to discover that I had a voice in a particular area, and that is in the area of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Diane Patrick said at one of her recent public events. “Being able to use my voice — that is my proudest moment.”
And what’s kept her going are e-mails and notes she’s received after telling her story.
“A number of people,” Patrick pointed out, “have said, ‘You saved my life.’ I never expected that. It continues to give me courage to speak out.”
Her closest friends say she is the same strong Diane Patrick they’ve always known and loved. She is smart, thoughtful, down-to-earth — and not afraid to speak her mind. She also remains deeply private and declined to be interviewed for this article.
But the Diane Patrick of today is different from the one the electorate saw shortly after her husband’s historic election as the state’s first black governor in 2006. After just a few months in office, the first lady was hospitalized for exhaustion and depression. The governor even contemplated resigning.
Deval Patrick knew his wife was uncomfortable with public life, once telling her: “You were proud I won but hoping I would lose.”
Her friends never doubted she would bounce back.
“I knew she would be fine,” said Deborah Jackson, president of Cambridge College and a longtime friend. “Everything she has done, she has done well. We all have bumps. You bump and keep going.”
Deval Patrick, in a recent interview at the State House, said his wife “has really grown into the role” but remains very much aware of life in the public eye.
“She would say her skin is thicker,’’ the outgoing governor said. “She reads every bit of every story. I don’t read anything, certainly not about me, and I don’t watch anything about me.”
Diane Patrick’s advice to the next first lady, Lauren Baker, is to focus on what’s important to her.
“People will want you to be everything to everyone, to be everywhere, to know everything,” Diane Patrick told an audience in December at the annual dinner of The Partnership, a group that works to advance minority professionals.
“Find your passion and then focus on that,” she said. “If you try to be everything to everybody, you are not anything to anyone, including yourself.”
One area where Diane Patrick has not let up is her law career. Warned it would be impossible to keep her day job, she continued to work, and in 2013 was appointed comanaging partner of Ropes & Gray’s Boston office.
She has chaired the firm’s diversity committee for the past five years. Ropes & Gray has been recognized nationally for its diversity; women make up about 40 percent of the attorneys in its US offices, and minorities account for roughly 17 percent.
Patrick’s specialty is labor and employment law, and her clients are largely educational and health care companies, including Partners HealthCare. She is known as a tough but civil-mannered lawyer who hasn’t used her political status to pull rank.
“She is, by far, my favorite adversary,” said Shelley Kroll, who represents unions and for years has been on the other side of the negotiating table from Patrick. “Things have gotten much more difficult for working people. There are a lot of employers and employer lawyers who take advantage of this climate. Diane is not one of them.”
Diane Patrick’s own future seems clearer than her husband’s. He wants to do something in the private sector, while weighing a run for the White House.
Five years older, Diane Patrick plans to practice law but perhaps for not much longer because Ropes & Gray has a mandatory retirement age of 65 for its partners.
She has made clear that afterwards she wants to return to her first love — teaching. Patrick taught elementary school for five years in New York City before becoming a lawyer.
She wants to end up at Dorchester’s Epiphany School, of which she has been a longtime supporter and where she sits on the board. It is a tuition-free middle school for children from low-income families and broken homes. She’ll do anything there.
“I will serve food in the kitchen,” she has said. “I just want to be around kids.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Diane Patrick spoke at a Jane Doe event.