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Alice Fitzpatrick has woven a rich life from unusual choices

Published 06/18/2013 12:00 AM

If life, as Forest Gump's mother advised him, is like a box of chocolates ("You never know what you're going to get."), then Alice Fitzpatrick's candy dish overfloweth.

Indeed, like the hapless yet lovable Gump, forever popping up at historic, game-changing moments in history, Fitzpatrick — retiring president of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut — has managed to be present, by either accident or design, at an astounding number of such moments throughout her long career.

Consider, for example, her first foray into social work in 1964.

Armed with a degree in psychology from the convent College of New Rochelle and fueled by a Peter-Paul-and-Marian desire to save the world, the New Haven-born Fitzpatrick headed off to Harlem and Manhattan's Lower East Side as a court-appointed caseworker for young offenders.

"My first home-visit was on the Monday morning after the Harlem riots [of July 16, 1964]," recalled Fitzpatrick. "There I was, this white girl from Connecticut with my little three-piece suit and my briefcase. And I remember getting off the train at 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and this cop just looked at me and said, 'What are you doing here?' I was clearly a hazard."

Wandering into bad neighborhoods was hardly the future Fitzpatrick's father, Dr. Harold Flynn, envisioned for young Alice — the third daughter of five children — whose older sisters also went into social service.

"My father grew up very poor in New Haven. His goal in life was to get us off Dixwell Avenue, which had turned into a ghetto, and I think one of his biggest frustrations in life was that his children all turned into a bunch of social workers," Fitzpatrick observed.

Nonetheless, some of her earliest memories of her father — an old-fashioned, house-calling general practitioner — included his tireless service to others. Heading off to school in the morning, she would often find him in the living room, a cigar in his mouth and galoshes on his feet.

"He'd be trying to decide if he would go to bed for an hour before going to the office, because he had been out all night delivering babies" she recalled.

After two years, the brutal realities of working in New York's toughest neighborhoods eventually chipped away at Fitzpatrick's resolve and she decided to move on.

"The poverty was so profound. Heroin had taken over everyone and everything, and I just didn't have any solutions," she said. "It was also embarrassing for me, a 21-year old, fresh out of college, to think that I had anything to give to these people."

By this time, Fitzpatrick also had her own family to think about: a husband, Bill, and two children. Again, her timing was quirky. Bill's graduation from Columbia Law School in the Spring of 1968 just happened to coincide with student riots that rocked the campus, as protesters occupied buildings and took administrators hostage. Fitzpatrick, at this point a stay-at-home mom, decided that it was time to get out of the city and into the suburbs. But like many young couples just starting out, making ends meet was a challenge. Fitzpatrick's solution?

"I became a game show contestant," she chuckled, a decision that mortified her husband — until she started winning.

"I went on 'Jeopardy,' and 'Dream House' which you had to play as couple," she said. On "Dream House," couples answered general-knowledge questions (Bill knew sports, while Fitpatrick's strength was movie trivia) to win a room of furniture each round. Those who made it to round seven won a house.

"And so we took the cash equivalent, paid off our student loans, used some of the money for a vacation, and the rest as a down-payment on a house on Long Island," said Fitzpatrick.

Bill's job offer as counsel for a southern California corporation eventually took the family west. Once more, however, her uncanny sense of timing landed her squarely in the midst of another social upheaval that would, literally, change the world.

"I took an attorney-assistant course at UCLA, found I was very good at legal research, and got a job with this dumb little startup company called LexisNexis in 1978," she said.

That "dumb little company" went on to become one of the world's earliest and largest electronically searchable databases of news and legal documents.

"There were no PCs, no Internet, and lawyers never touched keyboards," recalled Fitzpatrick. It turned into a fairly heady ride," Fitzpatrick said. "We were making up a lot of it as we went along, but it was the beginning of the information age."

By then in her mid-thirties, Fitzpatrick felt the time was right to go back to school and hone the professional skills she cultivated at LexisNexis. So she enrolled in the MBA program at Claremont University's graduate school of business management, named for . . . guess who, who also happened to be one of Fitzpatrick's teachers?

"Peter Drucker was my professor, the father of management and very smart," recalled Fitzpatrick, with characteristic understatement — a bit like saying Enstein was good at math. Yet as LexisNexis grew, so did her disappointment with large corporations that valued beefy annual reports and bottom lines over the human energy, creativity and appreciation for their customer base. As her father hoped, she had journeyed far from the rough streets of New Haven. Yet she found herself equally distant from the idealism she embraced as a young social worker. What, then, should an able-bodied, intelligent woman in her mid-forties do, whose children had grown and whose marriage had recently ended in divorce?

"I took a leave of absence, joined the Peace Corps, and went to Botswana," in southern Africa from 1988 to 1990, said Fitzpatrick. It was a career choice that — as usual — confounded her friends and family, yet proved immeasurably rewarding, both professionally and personally.

Fitzpatrick was assigned work close to her heart and talents.

"I got a job with the first lady of Botswana, Madame Masire, whose pet project was a community center in the capital, Gaborone," said Fitzpatrick. She and her new boss had much in common: Masire was a peasant woman who rose through the ranks of society and had a progressive, albeit level-headed passion for charity work.

"She wanted this community center run like a business, and wanted it to have a day-care center and women's programs, which were unknown in Africa at the time," Fitzpatrick said. It was good fit culturally as well. Even though she was only in her mid-forties, Fitzpatrick's name in Setswana (the indigenous language) was "Mosadi Mogolo," which means "old woman." While some might take offense at the moniker, it actually underscores the vast difference between Botswana's social attitude and those of the West, Fitzpatrick explained.

"I was living in a country that valued and admired age and girth," she smiled.

Fitzpatrick rolled up her sleeves and got to work. There were some unexpected challenges (when she suggested the 200-pupil preschool needed another teacher, the job fell to her) and adventurous interludes (a love affair with a mildly unhinged Scottish expatriate). But overall, the experience helped Fitzpatrick gain clarity about who she was and wanted to become.

"It all came together there in the midst of Africa. My love of social work, my bleeding heart liberalism and my MBA education, she said. "The biggest thing I learned [in Botswana] was that if you measure life in dollar signs and deadlines, you guarantee yourself stress and discontent. I just couldn't go back to the corporate world after that and knew I wanted to go into the non-profit arena, because there isn't that same, artificial, deadline-driven frenzy that I had experienced in the corporate world."

Returning to California, Fitzpatrick entered that arena via the Hollywood-based Assistance League, founded in the late 19th century by two Los Angeles society dames. The charity organization funded 10 separate agencies and was run by a board of no less than 100 members — an excessive roster, even by over-the-top, Hollywood standards.

"My life was spent in meetings. I don't think I got to my desk before four o'clock in the afternoon every day," Fitzpatrick said. Nonetheless, she managed to help the organization spearhead urban renewal in Hollywood, rescuing decaying neighborhoods from the wrecking ball, and growing the capital campaign. By 1994, she was ready to return East. She answered an ad to run a small operation in New London known (at the time) as the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut and the rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back on her long career, Fitzpatrick sums up who she is and what she has accomplished by quoting her first boss at Manhattan's Criminal Court. In what was meant to be a reprimand for her refusal to carry mace in her purse on home-visits, this small-minded bureaucrat — as Fitzpatrick described him — looked her straight in the eye and said, "I believe you have an underdeveloped sense of caution."

"It was a moment of enlightenment for me," she smiled. "That was my gift, and it has turned into a life advantage for me. Most people that I knew were hampered by fear, but I wasn't."

Though she has retired, what lies ahead for the "fearless Fitzpatrick" is anybody's guess. But look closely during the next world-shaking event. You may just see Fitzpatrick, with her Gumpian sense of timing, standing there on the sidelines, if not front-and-center.