Patti O’Berry gave me the news about two years ago.
We were in a radio studio in Tucson where I’d just had her as a guest on The Buckmaster Show. We were alone, the mic was off and she looked me straight in the eye.
“I have to tell you something, and you can only share it with your wife,” she said. “I have cancer.”
Cancer isn’t always a death sentence but her tone told me this was going to be a battle. But, I reasoned, nobody does battle better than Patti.
We talked a few minutes then said goodbye in the station lobby. I went back into the studio, put my head on the desk and cried.
Patti was already getting treatment and started wearing a wig. She lost weight but never lost her energy and focus. Those are hallmarks of Patti O’Berry and are part of her legacy.
Without those — and without the awful experience of a 17-year abusive first marriage — she likely wouldn’t have been able to pull off what she did in our community.
Cancer took Patti on Wednesday.
She made it happen
In 2005, Patti O’Berry started Hands of a Friend, and in December 2007, she opened Genesis House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She set aside everything that had been important to her to give it her full attention and she never took a dime in salary or public funding.
The year she was diagnosed, she was making plans to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the shelter. She also was in the middle of turning people upside-down to shake every nickel out of them for a planned expansion. It worked — well over $200,000 went toward making room for a dozen more women and other improvements on the property. The house is a testimony to perseverance and faith. She had plenty of both.
Today, the shelter serves upward of 500 women a year, providing job training, legal help and a place of peace to start putting your life back together.
Patti hugged, coached and chided many women to success. She also walked many of them out the door for breaking the rules, which she considered part of the job of protecting her other clients. She was tough as nails and everybody knew it.
Her work stretched far beyond Genesis House. The police knew her, the courts knew her, the constable knew her, state legislators knew her. Not all were glad to see her coming — she was relentless — but all of them respected her.
She spoke at conferences, threw successful fundraisers and would tell you she’s a “shameless beggar” for her women. She never hesitated to ask me for help promoting an event or using our ink to apply a little pressure on somebody who didn’t see things her way.
We wrote about a board game she created to teach young people about domestic violence, about her educational magazines and coloring books, and about her sales of chef aprons — she called them cover-ups because that’s what victims do. She knew all the figures — the average victim has to flee her home seven times before she does it for good. She had women in their 80s stay in her shelters.
Through it all, one of her biggest and quietest supporters — I called him “the calm in the storm that is Patti O’Berry” — was her husband, Jim. Patti had found the love of her life and he was a rock.
Patti and I didn’t always see things eye to eye. But there was a deep respect that came from an understanding that we were two weak people thrown into high-stress, often thankless jobs who couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
I once told her I didn’t drink, but if I ever started she’d be the reason. On her next visit she brought me a whisky flask. I keep it at work and would break it out when she walked through the door. That always brought that deep and loud from-the-gut laugh that I’m going to miss every single day.
Then we’d get down to the business of helping save the world, or at least our little corner of it.
— Dan Shearer