Patricia Collins, 83; wrote about being an astronaut’s wife
Surrounded by friends and family in her Houston home in 1966, Patricia Collins quietly worried about her astronaut husband. Years later, she wrote that at a time of day when “women all over the country are greeting husbands on their return from work,” Michael Collins was in orbit, “dangling and twirling on the end of a 50-foot lifeline that coils precariously out of the open hatch of the Gemini 10 spacecraft.”
After the spacewalk was over, she stepped outside where “microphones were thrust into my face, cameras clicked and whirred, questions flew, and I, in carefully articulated phrases, said that I was delighted to be part of this great adventure, pleased with its success, proud of Mike,” she wrote in an account published in the Globe in 1974.
All that was true, of course, but there were other feelings that decorum prevented her from disclosing publicly. She recounted her emotions during the seemingly endless minutes when he worked outside the Gemini capsule, when “chest aching from holding my breath, heart trembling to burst right through my shirt, I uncoil numb legs and begin to pace stiffly, praying half-aloud, ‘Dear God, let it be over.’ ”
An articulate writer who eloquently captured the behind-the-scenes concerns and challenges wives of astronauts faced during the Gemini and Apollo missions, Mrs. Collins died April 19 in the Marina Bay skilled nursing center in Quincy of complications of a stroke she suffered in September. She was 83 and divided her time between Quincy and Marco Island, Fla.
In 1969, before her husband set off on the first lunar landing mission, when he piloted the Apollo 11 command module orbiting above while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon’s surface below, Mrs. Collins wrote him a poem that included the verse:
Take my silence, though intended;
Fill it with the joy you feel.
Take my courage, now pretended —
You, my love, will make it real.
The courage the couple shared was all that the public, and even her friends and children, ever saw. By extension, her fortitude provided solace for those around her.
“I don’t recall ever feeling any fear about what Dad did,” said her daughter Kate of Chicago. “I don’t remember any fear about it at all. I think my mother carried that all herself.”
No stranger to meeting responsibility with inner strength, Patricia Mary Finnegan was the oldest of nine children born in Dorchester into a politically accomplished family.
Her mother, Julia Kendrigan, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her father, Joseph Finnegan, was the youngest of 10 born in County Mayo, Ireland, on a 10-acre plot where potatoes were the dominant crop. He immigrated to Massachusetts and went from hauling buckets of coal to serving in the state Senate. Three of Mrs. Collins’s younger brothers followed their father into government: John Finnegan became a state representative and state auditor, David Finnegan was a School Committee president and a two-time mayoral candidate, and Joe Finnegan was a deputy commissioner in the state Mental Health Department and vice chancellor of the state Education Department’s board of regents.
As a de facto extra parent while growing up, and later as the family genealogist, Mrs. Collins “kind of held the family together as eldest sister, and in later years she was the glue, the matriarch of her Irish family,” said her other daughter, Ann Starr of Belmont.
“It seemed that she excelled at whatever she put her mind to,” Joseph Finnegan said of his older sister during her funeral Mass April 14 in St. Ann Church in Dorchester, where she had been baptized as a baby. “Believe me when I say that she was a hard act to follow.”
She was awarded scholarships to Mount St. Joseph Academy and to Emmanuel College, and was a social worker for the City of Boston until she landed a civilian military job in France. At the Chambley-Bussieres Air Base, she met Michael Collins, a US Air Force fighter pilot who also traced his ancestry to Ireland.
“She was the love of my life, the one and only love of my life,” he said.
“When she walked into the room, it was like a thousand-watt light bulb went off. She just lit the place up,” he added. “She was smart, she was beautiful, she was very strong, and I think that’s the characteristic that endures when people are looking for one word to describe her.”
They married in 1957, in France, and his career as a test pilot and astronaut took them to postings in the United States far from her Boston upbringing. Through those years “she was not just 100 percent a homebody,” her husband said. “Everything she did, she really did well.”
While her children were young, she was a volunteer, and “it was all about giving back and serving this large community that we were a small piece of,” Kate said. “That is what my mother taught us to do. You look around, see what is the need, and you serve the greater good. You look outside yourself at the bigger picture.”
Forging close bonds at every step along the way, Mrs. Collins later worked in real estate in the Washington, D.C., area during her husband’s post-astronaut years as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs, director of the National Air and Space Museum, and undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
“To know her was to love her,” Ann wrote in a tribute to her mother. “She made friends wherever she went, and her friends were friends for life.”
Mrs. Collins was committed “to really nurturing relationships, long-standing relationships,” Kate said. Those ranged from people she knew as a child in church to wives of astronauts who met on-and-off for years after the space missions ended.
“It seems my mother was very much the glue for them,” Kate said. “She was the catalyst for the get-togethers. I didn’t know that growing up. It’s an amazing legacy to have left.”
In addition to her husband, two daughters, and her brothers John and Joseph of Naples, Fla., and David of Boston, Mrs. Collins leaves two sisters, Eleanora Golden of Delray Beach, Fla., and Julie Matzel of Mashpee; two other brothers, Tom Finnegan of Dorchester and Stephen Finnegan of Milton; and seven grandchildren.
A lifelong learner, Mrs. Collins “was voraciously curious about everything,” Kate said.
“Everything that touched upon her family she would research to the nth degree,” she added. “Her knowledge was very deep and broad. We used to joke that we weren’t doctors — we were just raised by one. And she was a lawyer. And she was a writer. She was many things, having never been one professionally.”
Mrs. Collins “was ahead of her time in many ways,” Ann said, including using her writing to give voice to thoughts she and the other wives of astronauts could not express in press conferences as their husbands headed into space:
Tell me how you see my role
To stay, to wait, yet yearn to go.
Where is the comfort for my soul?
You, my love, have helped me know