Our Mothers Ourselves

Mrs. Fitzpatrick -- Does She Have a First Name?

May 10, 2020 Katie Season 1 Episode 1
Our Mothers Ourselves
Mrs. Fitzpatrick -- Does She Have a First Name?
Chapters
Our Mothers Ourselves
Mrs. Fitzpatrick -- Does She Have a First Name?
May 10, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Katie


In this inaugural podcast of Our Mothers Ourselves, Katie Hafner talks with Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of 20th century U.S. history, about her mother, Mary.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick was for many years a favorite math teacher at Amherst Regional High School. She majored in math at U Mass in the 1940s, and went on to raise six kids while working full-time. Widowed suddenly in 1975 at age 52, Mary Fitzpatrick carried on. 

Hers wasn't a flashy life, but it was a meaningful one, leaving a deep impression on thousands of people at a pivotal time in their lives.  And it makes you think: It really does matter how you live your life every day.

Show Notes Transcript


In this inaugural podcast of Our Mothers Ourselves, Katie Hafner talks with Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of 20th century U.S. history, about her mother, Mary.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick was for many years a favorite math teacher at Amherst Regional High School. She majored in math at U Mass in the 1940s, and went on to raise six kids while working full-time. Widowed suddenly in 1975 at age 52, Mary Fitzpatrick carried on. 

Hers wasn't a flashy life, but it was a meaningful one, leaving a deep impression on thousands of people at a pivotal time in their lives.  And it makes you think: It really does matter how you live your life every day.

Katie Hafner :

Welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host Happy Mother's Day and welcome to this inaugural podcast of our mothers ourselves. It's a free flowing conversation I'll be having with a different guest every week to talk about her or his mother. This week, I'm speaking with Ellen Fitzpatrick. Ellen is presidential professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. She's the author and/or editor of eight books, including "The Highest Glass Ceiling : Women's Quest for the American Presidency," and "Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation," which was a New York Times bestseller. So, in celebration of Mother's Day today, I thought we'd take a little time to celebrate the life so far of Ellen Fitzpatrick's mother. Ellen's mother hasn't had a flashy life or one that made her famous. But it's been a life that left a deep impression on hundreds of people at a pivotal time in their lives. And it makes you think, it can really matter how you live your life every day. This is a woman who was well ahead of her time when it came to having a family six kids by the way, and a job And not just any job, but a long career in something she had a true gift for. And that was mathematics. The reason I've asked Ellen to join me is that her mother was my math teacher back in the 1970s in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 10th grade. I was in Mrs. Fitzpatrick's geometry class. Mrs. Fitzpatrick made all of us love math. It's not that she made it fun. But she made math interesting, even eye opening. And that's why all these years later, I'm still grateful to Mrs. Fitzpatrick. And with that, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Happy Mother's Day. And thank you so much for being here.

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

Pleasure, Katie. Thanks for asking me.

Katie Hafner :

First of all, I have to tell you that your mother has always been Mrs. Fitzpatrick to me.

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

Her first name is Mary. She has a first name.

Katie Hafner :

I'm wondering, could you give us a sense of her presence, both physical and... kind of the less tangible traits of your mother? My enduring memory of her is that she always looked like she had just stepped out of the beauty salon, which is what we used to call the stylist.

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

Yes, she cared a lot about that and she still does. She's 98 years old now. And she always was impeccably dressed. I remember as a child, just being in awe of her. You know, perfect nails and hair and jewelry and clothing. And I guess the the wonderful and interesting thing to me, as an academic paradox, was that she was also such a math Brainiac. I don't always put these two things together. But they came together very naturally in my mother.

Katie Hafner :

Let's go back. So you grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. And what do you remember about her as a mom?

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

Well, my mother has an interesting past because she was an only child. And she was very doted upon by her parents and she went on to have six children. And pretty, you know, rambunctious, boisterous lot we were, What I remember about my mother, interestingly, growing up in Amherst in the 50s. It was really a kind of Protestant republican redoubt, which is sort of hard to imagine today when you think about what Amherst is like now, but we were a large Irish Catholic family and my mother worked unlike most other mothers, she went back to work actually, not too long after I was born first as a assistant to a chemist at Amherst College, and then later, she began teaching. So I had a mother who worked which was not true of most of my friends. And she was busy and yet she took a tremendous interest in all of us. And she actually taught me math, I was not a very good math student. About half of the six got her math skills and the other half didn't, I was in the half that didn't. And I think today I still wouldn't be able to add, subtract, divide or multiply had she not sat me down after dinner each night with flashcards. So she was very devoted and interested mother. But you know, a busy one as well.

Katie Hafner :

So I'd like to go back and talk to you a little bit about your mother's childhood, where she grew up, and how you understand her childhood to been

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

She grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. And it's an interesting story because her father came to the United States from Ireland in the early 20th century. He was a boy at the time, I think, maybe eight years old. His name was Martin Callahan. And he became ultimately he became a foreman in the textile mills where many immigrants worked in this part of Massachusetts, and she, her mother also belonged to, I think, to this wider circle of Irish. You know, her father, her mother, her mother's grandfather had been in the United States much longer. But she was, as I said, an only child and she was very proud, I think, is proud of her origin. She grew up next to the ocean, she really instilled in us the love of being near the water. She had a large extended family of aunts and uncles who took a great interest in her. And she lived, of course, during the Depression when the mills, many of them were greatly impacted, and her family briefly moved to Webster, Massachusetts, where her father was able to get work. So they did okay during the Depression. But the great thing about my mother, one of the many great things is that she never forgot where she came from. And she had tremendous sympathy, interest and concern about working people her whole life one of her early memories was seeing the factory workers on a picket line. picketing the owners of the textile mill. And her mother's sympathies were were with these workers. And so she had a strong sense of justice. I think growing up during the New Deal seeing the depression, and this really has remained with her her whole life.

Katie Hafner :

And how did she get to Amherst?

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

She came to Amherst because her parents, even though they had had very limited education themselves, and I mean, very limited - although her father had apparently a great skill with numbers and so maybe this is where she came by it - they were determined for her to have a college education. And so she went to what was then Massachusetts State College that later became the University of Massachusetts. And that's how she got to Amherst. And she, of course, was the first person in her family to go to college. And it's where she met my father. They were both members of the class of 1943. And my mother was a math major of which there were very few women in in her class, of course,

Katie Hafner :

so there's a war happening, and your mom decides to major in mathematics. Do you have to have any idea how many others there were at UMass at the time majoring in math?

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

I don't remember. I think I asked her once. And I think there were not many but she excelled. And it's interesting because I've learned, in some sense so much history just by absorbing my mother's wife and her experience. And I'm a historian of the 20th century, her life has spanned the 20th century, in some sense, a good part of it anyway. And she didn't really like history at all. But she was very, very good in math and science. And, and so it was a class that, you know, was was had lived through the depression, and now they were going to be facing living through this world war.

Katie Hafner :

You know, what fascinates me, Ellen and you're a historian is this idea that a young woman, Mary Fitzpatrick, in this case, she'd go to UMass decide to be a math major. Then she gets married. She has six children. What was your sense when you were growing up? What did she What was your sense? her sense of herself and her own place in the world? I know that's a big question.

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

I don't think my mother was terribly self conscious about her life. And, you know if I had to, to sort of summarize one thing about her that I think has really contributed to her ability to weather, all of the things she's experienced in life. She didn't think about herself a lot. She was really engaged with her children, with her husband, with her teaching with her work, and she just got up every day and did what needed to be done. And this capacity of my mother's to just forge ahead. I don't think that she thought about, you know, the meaning of her place in the world. I mean, maybe she did in the wee hours if she had any wee hours and wasn't completely exhausted by us and everything else she was doing. But I think that she did. She was very smart. And I think that she wanted to do meaningful work. And she did. So when I was a young assistant professor. I had students who when I was teaching at Harvard, I remember the first day I gave a lecture there. I had several hundred students in the classroom and someone came up to me at the end of the class and said, Is your mother, a math teacher? And it was probably one of your contemporaries from our high school who had had math with her.

Katie Hafner :

Oh, that's great. She didn't teach it to us with this kind of infectious enthusiasm. She just laid it out to us and she would walk in she she had these transparencies, I'll never forget that she would sit there. She sat at the overhead projector, and put on one transparency after another and the world would sort of unfold in front of us.

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

Oh, I can definitely picture that. She was interested in teaching well; she did teach well. And I think that she spent a very, very small amount of time ever thinking about herself, but certainly that was my impression of her as a child anyway.

Katie Hafner :

You know, I remember in Amherst, my stepmother had her, quote, women's lib group. And they were the feminists were called women's livers. For those of you out there who aren't, weren't familiar with the term. What was your mother's take on on feminism?

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

Well, it's interesting, you know, the thing I remember about that, which is something that I encountered when I went to college in 1970, was my father, saying the first time I heard the word feminist was my father saying to me, I've always been a feminist, Ellen And I had to go, I had to go look up the word feminist. I wasn't sure what it meant. And I was probably 18 at the time, or 17, something like that. And but then, of course, you know, that was the era and everybody was soon immersed in it. And you know, my mother, I think always sort of gave to us the idea. She had five daughters and one son, that we could do whatever it was, we chose to do up to the limit of our ability to work hard and go at it. So I never had any sense of being constrained or discouraged, and certainly not from any intellectual pursuits. My parents were always reading. And as a child, they enrolled me in this children's book club. And I remember as a little kid I was so excited to get a piece of mail with my name on it and then to open it up and to have it be a book was even better. So they read often and they encouraged us but they they weren't helicopter parents telling us to do things we just sort of observed their example and I think followed suit.

Katie Hafner :

Do you think she ever reflected on doing more maybe being a mathematician in an academic setting? Do you have any sense of what she might have wanted, versus what the times dictated?

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

I never had any sense that she was dissatisfied with the life choice that she had made. It's a very interesting question and it's one that I have talked to her about because when she was graduating from college, she had offers to work in Industry it was, of course, the Second World War and she had these wonderful math skills. And she was interested in getting married to my father, which I think was a great disappointment to her mother, who sort of, you know, the idea that my mother was going to get married right away and have, you know, go on and presumably have a family. And I think she wants told me that her mother said something like, you know, why did we educate you? So her mother who had had very little education, really had, you know, hopes that my mother would be, you know, very focused on career. And I think that my mother really wanted to both get married and have children and have a family but also, you know, eventually -- I think early on, she might have said she didn't have the luxury to stay home like other mother and married women did. Obviously having a two income family was helpful when you had six children. But I think there she definitely was happier to have been doing meaningful work. I was very upset when I was a little girl that my mother wasn't home being Donna Reed. And if I had this, if I had to say anything about my whole relationship with my mother over my whole life, boy did I smarten up as I got older and saw the depth of my mother's life. And as a child, you know, we watched on television, Leave it to Beaver and Donna Reed and the mother who was always home and there weren't like five other kids to compete with. There was like one other kid to compete with. And so I envied that and I envied I certainly, you know, wished that I could have been the sole center of her attention. I mean, what child doesn't want that, I guess except the one that has it. I won't know what that was like. My mother was very fair minded and showed great equilibrium in her treatment of her children. We, I think, always took some pleasure when someone else was in the doghouse and there was a desire to pile on and she always came to the defense, much to our chagrin of whomever was in the doghouse. It seems such a paradox. How could you be in the doghouse and then be being defended by my mother? I never heard my mother say anything in which she would have cast herself or even hinted that she was in any way of victim. SShe - and she had some big challenges in her life. She was widowed at 52 years old, with six children and my youngest sister was 13 years old at the time. She had to see Jean, my sister, you know, see her through high school and through college on her own without my father. My father died very suddenly of a heart attack. totally unexpected. Her whole life was turned upside down. And I never heard one word of self pity or why me. She just faced the wind and moved ahead with tremendous courage. Would she have,- you know, I think of her as being so much that it's hard for me to imagine her being quote “more.“ Do you know what I mean? Like it's just amazing what she accomplished in her life and all the good that she did. And so I think it it was, it was a life to be, It has been, continues to be a life to be admired.

Katie Hafner :

Well, Ellen Fitzpatrick, I would like to thank you so much for talking to me today about your mother. It was such a pleasure.

Ellen Fitzpatrick :

It was my pleasure.

Katie Hafner :

And that's it for Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Thanks for listening everyone. And Happy Mother's Day.