The Woman Who Taught Us How to Innovate

Dr. Patricia McFate, my godmother, and the first renaissance woman we knew, after our mother, passed away peacefully recently. There’s nothing like death to clarify life.

In appreciation of Patty, as we called her, and her life, I want to recount the example she set for me and my sisters, Amy and Mari, as a woman who simply never stopped learning.  And doing.

As a little girl, I was captivated by her physical presence: tall, strong, lithe, and confident. And verbal. Very verbal. Conversational light emanated from her as she bantered and laughed and argued with whoever was in our living room. She was the Dean of Liberal Arts at the University of Illinois, my mother’s best friend, and a fixture in our home on weekends, where she travelled from her Old Town apartment in Chicago. She dated my parents friends, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, among others, but she was independently and autonomously her own person. She became a duo with Sanford Harris, my father’s best friend, a songwriter and raconteur from Chicago’s South Side. They were the indelible drumbeat of ideas, energy and love that we lived within.

Later on, I watched from afar as her career traversed through time and space and knowledge and power and impact: She was, in succession, with a grace, focus, intellect and reach that I can still not fully comprehend:

• A doctor, an M.D.

• Dean of the University of Pennsylvania

• Head of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Carter Era

• Head of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation

• Head of the American Scandinavian Foundation

• Fellow at SAIC — where she became an expert on base security and met her husband, then SAIC’s Chief Science Officer, and Cold War Intelligence expert, Sidney Graybeal and began a beloved marriage of equals. He alerted President Kennedy to the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were both dedicated civil servants.

• Film Documentarian – with her friend the New Mexico director/film-maker Mary Lance at New Deal Films, produced films including Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See, and Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo. She passionately loved the color blue.

• Commission of Operas, Board Member, Fundraiser, for the Santa Fe Opera

• Fighter for the arts, preserving the beautiful 1931 Lensic Center for Performing Arts in Santa Fe.

• Dog lover, who celebrated her standard poodle and companion, Max, by building a maze for him in her backyard among the cactus and the red rock.

• Contributor to the ASPCA and animal lover writ large. She especially loved, had a thing, for Polar Bears.

• Yoga practitioner, Tango lover, inveterate reader, traveler, white wine aficionado, friend.

Once, during one of our last visits, I asked her the question “How? How did you do all of this?”

She shot back at me, without hesitating: “I just love to learn.”

What we, my sisters Mari and Amy and I, not so much learned as beheld, witnessed, and understood from Patty goes well beyond any life lessons or platitudes. We were simply blessed to know her, to be in her orbit, as was the rest of the world, which she treated as a garden to be watered and cultivated, tenderly preserved, watched over, protected, and generated, over and over and over again.

Rest in peace, Patricia McFate.

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Julie Anixter is the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She also serves as the Executive in Residence for the Disruptor Foundation. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on future innovators. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military, Healthcare, Education, Manufacturing and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.  You can follow her @julieanixter

Julie Anixter




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