Our Mothers Ourselves

Erin Brockovich has her mom, B.J. Pattee, to thank for her "stick-to-itive-ness."

July 04, 2020 Season 1 Episode 9
Our Mothers Ourselves
Erin Brockovich has her mom, B.J. Pattee, to thank for her "stick-to-itive-ness."
Chapters
Our Mothers Ourselves
Erin Brockovich has her mom, B.J. Pattee, to thank for her "stick-to-itive-ness."
Jul 04, 2020 Season 1 Episode 9


Katie talks with Erin Brockovich (yes, that Erin Brockovich), who attributes her doggedness and fearlessness to her mother's  own unwavering determination, wrapped in a lifelong embrace of encouragement, love, and faith. 

Erin's childhood memories are of unalloyed happiness and optimism. Betty Jo Pattee, born in Ponca City, Oklahoma,raised Erin and her siblings to see things through, however tough it gets. She was spiritual without belonging to any particular denomination. B.J. was the first to pinpoint her daughter's dyslexia, and became Erin's most ardent champion, determined to let Erin know she was different but far from inferior.


Show Notes Transcript


Katie talks with Erin Brockovich (yes, that Erin Brockovich), who attributes her doggedness and fearlessness to her mother's  own unwavering determination, wrapped in a lifelong embrace of encouragement, love, and faith. 

Erin's childhood memories are of unalloyed happiness and optimism. Betty Jo Pattee, born in Ponca City, Oklahoma,raised Erin and her siblings to see things through, however tough it gets. She was spiritual without belonging to any particular denomination. B.J. was the first to pinpoint her daughter's dyslexia, and became Erin's most ardent champion, determined to let Erin know she was different but far from inferior.


Intro :

My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity. My mother was curious, sensitive, compassionate, honest, always there for us, unflappable, loyal, complicated, she is devoted, resilient, dazzling, giving, vivacious, extraordinary.

Erin Brockovich :

I have many a day where I'm thinking, "Okay, I'm getting pretty frustrated here." And I could hear my mom. And just when I'm thinking I'm going to give up. I hear, you know, picks up up by the bootstraps gotta have that stick-to-it-iveness, Erin.

Katie Hafner :

Welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. On the off chance that the name Erin Brockovich is unfamiliar to you, here's a quick refresher: In the 1990s, Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk from Lawrence, Kansas embarked on a long legal battle to help the residents of a Southern California town whose health was ruined by toxic chemicals from a PG&E plant. It was thanks to Erin's doggedness that PG&E ended up paying millions of dollars to the victims. Julia Roberts played her in the movie Erin Brockovich, which came out in 2000. As it happens, it was Erin's mom, Betty Jo petite, who gave her daughter such over the top determination to keep on fighting, whatever that fight may be. Erin joined me recently to talk about Betty Jo, who died in 2008 at the age of 84, Aaron Brown kovich thank you so much for joining me to talk about your mom.

Erin Brockovich :

She's the best I couldn't think of something better to talk about in my mom. I could talk forever about Betty Jo.

Katie Hafner :

I found a picture of her. And I'm looking at this picture. I know it's the sweetest picture. And I thought, Wait a minute, she looks a lot like somebody. And I thought she looks exactly like Eve Arden. Has anyone ever said that?

Erin Brockovich :

No, no! But I have to- what picture are you hiding from me?

Katie Hafner :

Okay, I'm going to text it to you right now. So-

Erin Brockovich :

Oh, wonderful.

Katie Hafner :

Here it comes.

Erin Brockovich :

Eve Arden? No, you're the first!

Katie Hafner :

The only picture I could find of her was the one that I think- Whoops. Did you get it?

Erin Brockovich :

Well, I see the picture. Eve Arden.

Katie Hafner :

Yep.

Erin Brockovich :

No, I could see why you think that.

Katie Hafner :

I know, right?

Erin Brockovich :

You're looking at it and I'm like it- You know what? I think it's the nose.

Katie Hafner :

I think it's the nose. It-

Erin Brockovich :

Wow! I'll share it with my siblings! Ohhh my mom.

Katie Hafner :

So right off the bat, I want to ask you, if you were to think of one word to describe your mother, what would that word be?

Erin Brockovich :

It can't just be one. I'm trying to put one word into you get one, stick-to-it-iveness.

Katie Hafner :

Because?

Erin Brockovich :

Because it embodies hope. It embodies determination. It embodies passion. It embodies persistence. And I have stick-to-it-iveness because my mom, you know, dogged persistence born of obligation and determination. And it's all about, you know, stubbornness, really. I think so many of us are, but stick-to-it-iveness, its definition is now and propensity: To follow through in a determined manner-

Katie Hafner :

Are you reading-

Erin Brockovich :

Dogged persistence born of obligation-

Katie Hafner :

Did you just look it up?

Erin Brockovich :

-And stubbornness. No, it's in my head. And it is because of my mom.

Katie Hafner :

So let's go back to her. She was born in 1923.

Erin Brockovich :

Right. My dad was I think '24

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm. And she was born in Oklahoma.

Erin Brockovich :

Correct. Ponca City.

Katie Hafner :

Uh huh. And-

Erin Brockovich :

Another Pioneer Woman.

Katie Hafner :

So- Exactly, the Pioneer Woman. So what do you know about her childhood?

Erin Brockovich :

You know, we used to kinda laugh on the nose. We'd call her Nellie from Little House on the Prairie because my mom loves sugar. She loves her sweets, and she'd always get sweets out of, you know, my grandpa, her daddy's store.

Katie Hafner :

And what kind of store did he have?

Erin Brockovich :

A grocery store. And he was, oh my gosh, he was just always down in the church and always singing and mom was always coming and singing and there was always a vibration of faith and happiness with my mom.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

And she was that way as a little girl. And Veera, her mom is, for me it was laughter and I know that's what she grew up with, because that's who she is. And we used to go visit all the time down in Ponca City and the house that her parents built and seeing pictures of her, she had another sister named Dorothy. And it was, you know, they were outdoors, they spent a great deal of time down there with the Ponca nation. And she spent a great deal of time up at the Pioneer Woman parks. She was she's just was such a representation of that as a child and they were talking about, you know, BJ outside and she was always taking the lead or taking the charge or giving back or involved and she learned that they said as a kid and just being around her father in store and everybody that came in and the help that they needed and how she responded as a young child.

Katie Hafner :

Did she- so she had many siblings?

Erin Brockovich :

One. And they owned the store during the Great Depression. And it was one of the few stores around. So she was always helpful to everyone that came in. And I remember these stories.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hm.

Erin Brockovich :

Being at my grandparents house.

Katie Hafner :

So your mom worked in the store?

Erin Brockovich :

Yeah, I mean, she was just, you know, it's interesting because she graduated with a degree in sociology in journalism. So that helps explain who she was as a child, even though I wasn't around what I've learned from her and from my grandma and grandpa, and her sister. And her compassion for people and interest in wanting to help, she exhibited that as a young child and asking a lot of questions. And, um, she had a huge heart and always understanding somebody that maybe didn't have the luxury or came a long way for groceries, or she would be the one that would say, you know, can we throw that in? Just that at a very young age, exhibited that kind of compassion for others and wanting to help and understanding and very inquisitive.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hm.

Erin Brockovich :

So that's, you know, again, I wasn't there with her but I couldn't tell you who she was as my mom but that's her upbringing in Ponca City, Oklahoma. And her father was Thomas Bert O'Neal and her mom was Vera.

Katie Hafner :

The O'Neals.

Erin Brockovich :

The O'Neals.

Katie Hafner :

And when she went away to college, did she ever talk to you about whether her parents thought it was a good idea? I mean, so she went in the 40's during the War.

Erin Brockovich :

Yes. She was- She and my father. Both are Gamma Phi Beta and Sigma Chi sweethearts. He was a big ballplayer and they met through friends that way, I believe.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

And they were together through most of school and got married. And had that 63-year love affair.

Katie Hafner :

And she was studying journalism and sociology.

Erin Brockovich :

Mm hmm.

Katie Hafner :

At the University of Kansas.

Erin Brockovich :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And did she want to be a journalist, and then did she become a journalist?

Erin Brockovich :

I think it was a little bit of both, because for a while she was also a schoolteacher. And dealing with me, as a mom, as somebody who had a learning disability. I mean, all these things were exhibited in her as, as, that I see as my mother.

Katie Hafner :

Uh huh.

Erin Brockovich :

So schoolteacher, and and she had a dual degree from KU. And so she was a huge KU fan. She ultimately ended up working at KU Alumni Association, started as Editor in Chief but ultimately retired as Acting Director. And I remember as a child hearing her out on the typewriter at two in the morning, and she would fly to all other hosts and events. Like you know, the KU alumni would have all these worldly trips and my mom and dad were always the host and the host, and mom was flying around Kansas on the little pedal jumper planes doing different stories about somebody from KU and, and I can still hear her typewriter going in my head at two in the morning.

Katie Hafner :

So she loved her job.

Erin Brockovich :

Oh, she loved her job. She loved the people in her job. She lost meeting people going out. And she was just so involved in the education and the University and keeping that alumni together and doing all the stories for the KU magazine, and the Kansas University Alumni Association, and the magazine! This is where stick-to-it-iveness comes from. She used to always tell me, you know, when I'd have a bad day, especially when it comes to school, you know, I just felt like giving up and she'd always say, "Oh, you know, you have to, you know, pick yourself up by the bootstraps, you got to have that stick-to-it-iveness Erin. And she exemplified that and just through her own, you know, determination and love for her own work. Mom was always positive. Always!

Katie Hafner :

You never saw her have a bad day? Like-

Erin Brockovich :

Like, she'd have a bad day, like any one of us could be frustrated with, you know, a skirt or something like that. But she, in watching her in her work, her enthusiasm her, she just had this, you gotta have faith, you have to believe, energy and connection with people, and was always helpful. And you just, she'd always say, "Don't let your dauber get you down."

Katie Hafner :

Don't let your what get you down?

Erin Brockovich :

Don't let your dauber get down.

Katie Hafner :

What's your dauber? What?

Erin Brockovich :

I dunno, it's one of her, one of our Kansas slang words, I think, possibly. Don't be down in the dumps. Is your dauber down. Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Hahahaha!

Erin Brockovich :

It's what she would always say!

Katie Hafner :

I know you hate that skirt!

Erin Brockovich :

I know! Those were the things that would-

Katie Hafner :

Throw you!

Erin Brockovich :

Yeah. But she'd get past it. And just was always, always! And anybody and everybody would tell you that about BJ Pattee.

Katie Hafner :

BJ. So not Betty, people called her BJ.

Erin Brockovich :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

So, um, tell me about watching your mom and your dad interact. One thing that I love hearing about is great relationships. Sounds like they had one.

Erin Brockovich :

They did. If they had any issues, it would always be talked out. But my parents were married 63 years, and they adored each other. My dad worked full time, she worked full time. But they had great friends and they love to, you know, golf together, they traveled together, they- I remember, in my childhood, more laughter with my parents, and gatherings with their friends. And I never, I never saw a fight. There could be a disagreement, but it wasn't a fight and it would be quickly resolved through communication. They were both great communicators. Growing up was easy. In some respects for me, it was peaceful. I felt loved. And parents were always together, if there was any-

Katie Hafner :

Amazing.

Erin Brockovich :

And it was just a great love. You know my dad is the person that taught me so much about respect, and my mom had that. It was respect for each other.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

And respect for opinions. And it was happiness.

Katie Hafner :

So she must have gotten that from her family. Right? As this-

Erin Brockovich :

Oh had to have been. My grandma and grandpa. Vera and, and TB, so they called him. Again, laughter. Happiness. Thankfulness. Fortitude if things are down. We will get through it.

Katie Hafner :

And were they Oklahomans too? Multiple? Were there-

Erin Brockovich :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Generations of Oklahomans?

Erin Brockovich :

My dad, my grandfather, Thomas Burt was from Arkansas.

Katie Hafner :

Oh from Arkansas.

Erin Brockovich :

Mhm. Even my grandma and grandpa were married for, for really 60-some years. The happiness- and it's interesting having this conversation with you. Both Veera and my mom, and it, well it really takes me back to that Pioneer Woman. Which I think they were. We'll sing our way through it. We'll laugh our way through it. We'll be here for each other through it. That is my grandmother Veera, and my mom. Betty Jo.

Katie Hafner :

Sounds like you too.

Erin Brockovich :

I know. It's really weird having this conversation with you.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah. it sounds like it's a, it's an intergenerational trait. If it were something that you could find on a gene.

Erin Brockovich :

Yeah. Yeah, that's true. And, and I, you know, I learned it, you know, to this day. I have many a day where I'm thinking, "Okay, I'm getting pretty frustrated here." And I could hear my mom. And just when I'm thinking I'm going to give up, I hear her: "Where's your stick-to-it-iveness? When the going gets tough, the tough get going." And along with that, I can still hear laughing in the background, having conversations with friends and- Inquisitiveness. Talking, talking. Communicating, communicating. That was such a big deal for my mom. Even as an educator, which she was at one time. An understanding of people. That communication. That respect. That respect that you feel that way, or I feel this way. And even having this conversation with you, like I'm going, "Wow. Is that what we're missing today?" Ahahaha!

Katie Hafner :

Can you- So what's a good example? Can you think of an example where she was, it was hard and she just powered through it?

Erin Brockovich :

I think it was frustrating for her even with me. As my, as my mom, and her's as a daughter. I'm a dyslexic. My mom had a great skill of observation, especially with her children. Moms are keen on this.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm. They are.

Erin Brockovich :

I've worked with so many moms in the environmental issues, and they're the first ones. They're very intuitive. They're very keen. Mom started noticing subtle changes, like putting my shoes on the wrong feet.

Katie Hafner :

Mh hmm?

Erin Brockovich :

She started noticing subtle changes in school. So she- And even though no one even understood it, she persevered and pushed me through that system. She was the one that didn't let me fall through the cracks. She never gave up hope on me. My mom is the one that taught me, and said, "Just because she's different, doesn't mean she's inferior." And she'd never want me to, she never wanted me to think about myself that way. Because I'm different.

Katie Hafner :

And that was early, the dyslexia. I mean-

Erin Brockovich :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Very early to diagnose dyslexia.

Erin Brockovich :

Well, the diagnosis actually came later. So it was- Everyone knew that there was some learning disability, even my mom. But my mom also knew, she goes, "No, you can't beat her at a game of Fish. You can't. So she's learning some way." And because I didn't fit that, in that certain, you know, square peg that, therefore I wasn't learning. So she worked and pushed through the schools, and schoolteachers, and outside, you know, tutoring, or herself sitting and working with me. So she saw something. She didn't judge it. She knew I could lose my self-esteem because of it, and how she would keep me feeling solid about myself. But also how she would unravel what is going on with her. And that was amazing. It's, it's difficult. When there is a learning disability. And-

Katie Hafner :

Well, and you must have felt like she was completely supporting you, or else you could have given up. But she-

Erin Brockovich :

She was my biggest cheerleader.

Katie Hafner :

Ohh.

Erin Brockovich :

And she- There wasn't a judgement. And she saw something was different. But she also saw that she knew I was learning. But she also saw that I was getting set up inside a box, and she didn't want me in there. She wanted me to know if a door closes a window opens. So there was always this, even though there was an obstacle.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

It wasn't this, "Oh, it's an obstacle. It's insurmountable. We can't get past it." She says, "No, we can. Let's back up. Let's go around it. Let me see what this is." Talking to the schoolteacher, extra classes. You know, I had problems with numbers. But it wasn't until high school that we were really learning we're dealing with a dyslexia, because it was such an unknown.

Katie Hafner :

Did you confide in her, um, about boys?

Erin Brockovich :

No.

Katie Hafner :

Hahaha! Okay.

Erin Brockovich :

Nooo! My mom, you know, was very private about issues like that.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

Might have talked to my sister about it, but mostly my girlfriends.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

But even if I had one, she would have known. BJ had eyes on the back of her head. Hahaha!

Katie Hafner :

When you started doing your very important work... So you moved to California, when you started doing your work, was she completely- Did you explain to her what you were doing,? Was she completely supportive then, and told you to stick to it?

Erin Brockovich :

Absolutely, 100%. You know, my dad was instrumental there as well. I just remember my mom- Even at one of my first keynote addresses, after the film had come out, in Topeka, Kansas. And she was there. And she just looked at me and she would cry. And she would just say, "I'm so proud of you." I think that, you know, she went through, she just she never stopped believing. She never stopped being that cheerleader. And she never made it about her. She was just so proud of me. She was such a beautiful woman. Mothers are so beautiful.

Katie Hafner :

So what you just said, she never made it about her. That's key, isn't it?

Erin Brockovich :

Yeah. She was just, she just, she goes, "Where did you learn all this?" I'm like, "Are you kidding me, mom? Uh, you. You, you taught me how to fight through it." And she knew that a child, a child should never lose hope or slide through that crack. And if she could keep that fire alive in me to believe in myself, I would be okay. And I was. That support and that belief that she believed in me, and that I needed to believe in myself. And she was going to help me get there. And she did it with laughter, and love and, you know, silliness. So I didn't like really just get into this dark place.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm. She was not a dark place person.

Erin Brockovich :

Oh, no. She was not. She, she had light. And energy. And love. And hope. And faith. You know, I talked to her, you know, through high school and, especially after I started having my children, about spirituality. And she would always tell me, "You just, you have to have faith. You have to trust in the Universe. You know, the sun will rise tomorrow." These were always the things, or the beauty of thunder, that scared me.

Katie Hafner :

Mm.

Erin Brockovich :

She and her mom would always tell me it was God bowling.

Katie Hafner :

God bowling?

Erin Brockovich :

And that was the thunder, when He made a strike. Hahaha! So, you know, I'd become intrigued! Oh! And it became less fearful for me. And so when I was scared, when I was feeling down in the mouth. You know, in the daubers. My mom would say, "Don't let your dauber get down!" It would be risen with, again, laughter, and taking fear or angst away from something.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

And turning it in to hope.

Katie Hafner :

And what, what religion was she?

Erin Brockovich :

You know, I asked her that. And I don't know that she practiced any, really, religion. And that's why I started with that conversation. I asked her about that. You just have to have faith.

Katie Hafner :

Well, that's-

Erin Brockovich :

In the Universe.

Katie Hafner :

That's, that, that, that's also very early on. To-

Erin Brockovich :

Mm h,m.

Katie Hafner :

To be spiritual without one denomination or another.

Erin Brockovich :

Correct. She grew up, especially her father, down just singing in the churches. But we, when she became an adult and had a family, we weren't in church every Sunday.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Erin Brockovich :

But there was always with mom, and I'd always check in with her on this. And I'm still, I am still this way. I am connected to this Earth. That is her thing. The rain, the wind, the water.

Katie Hafner :

It must have been really tough to lose her.

Erin Brockovich :

Oh my gosh, well- So I'll tell you the story. I was... Mom had, was definitely getting older. She was about 82, 83 maybe. And she was showing some signs of dementia. It was never diagnosed Alzheimer's, but we were seeing that. And straining, and forgetfulness. And she and dad had always planned for, as they got older, an assisted living home. And so she was there for a few months. And my dad was definitely aging as well. And it was very difficult. But the dementia definitely started to get worse. And... I was very connected to my mom. And I was in Chicago at a keynote address. And I had missed sixteen phone calls. And it was my dad. He said, "I think you need to come home." And I was in Chicago. So I was an hour flight away, and I got home. And I went with my dad, and she was definitely not, not good.

Katie Hafner :

Mm.

Erin Brockovich :

And my brother Frankie and the family showed up, and we were all there and with her. And she was kind of like, you know, she was transitioning. It was obvious. And she, she was there, but not. But- And I went home with my dad, and we talked, and I said, "You know, dad, I think I'm gonna go back." He goes, "Well, we can go again tomorrow." I'm like, "Mm, no. I think I'm gonna go back."

Katie Hafner :

Mm.

Erin Brockovich :

I went in the room, and I got her favorite photos of the family. And I went back, and put all the pictures up. And a candle, and I lit it. And I crawled in bed with her. And I tucked her up under my arm and kind of rocked her. And I have never sobbed like that in my life.

Katie Hafner :

Ohh.

Erin Brockovich :

Just tears and snot were running off my face and dripping onto her. And I let her know how amazing she was. And I said, "If you need to go, I support you. And I could feel her transitioning. And I just held her like a baby. And I rocked. And I just told her thank you, and how much I loved her, and that it was okay. And how proud I was of her. And when she took that last breath, and I, I just I'll never forget it. I just screamed from the top of my voice. I said, "Oh my God, you made it!" I said, "I am so proud of you, mom. You made it home!" And it was just the most miraculous moment I've ever shared. And you can feel it, and I wouldn't have missed that moment for anything in the world.

Katie Hafner :

You had that hunch to go back, right?

Erin Brockovich :

Absolutely. I knew it. I knew it. And she called me home. She called me there. And... I've learned death is... What we always think is death is bad. And my mom knew I was very afraid of death. And it was interesting that I was the one that, through that process, and it is a process, called me there. And because of that, I- a lot of my fear of surrounding death went away. It's a transition. If we'll allow it. And it was an incredible moment. I will never forget it.

Katie Hafner :

You know, while you were talking, I had one thought. Which is that, that photo I sent you of Eve Arden. It's not just the nose. It's that, it's the twinkle in the eye.

Erin Brockovich :

Oh, I was, when I first said that, I said nose. I almost came back and said, "I think it's the eyes too."

Katie Hafner :

Yeah.

Erin Brockovich :

That's very ---- that you see that.

Katie Hafner :

The eye thing?

Erin Brockovich :

Yes, I do. And we all have such- You know, mothers are so special and unique. And it was a- I was blessed.

Katie Hafner :

Yep. And you were blessed that you had her.

Erin Brockovich :

Oh my gosh.

Katie Hafner :

Think of all the bad moms out there, right?

Erin Brockovich :

I know. My daughters and I, we've gone through those phases. Yeah. Worst mother ever! You know. I don't agree with you. But, um, yeah, mothers. That- there's a wonderful connection.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah.

Erin Brockovich :

For mothers, especially with our children. I think about that, you know. There's a connection with them before they even present themselves, you know, as they're growing in our wombs.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm. Yeah. Very cellular. Yeah. And there's-

Erin Brockovich :

I felt very cellularly connected with my mom, even in her passing.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah, there's just nothing quite like it. That particular connection.

Erin Brockovich :

Correct.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah. Well, thank you so much for talking to me about your amazing mom.

Erin Brockovich :

Thank you for having me. And thank you for doing something like this. I think there's, especially these days, a moment for us to check in again, and remember.

Katie Hafner :

You know, that's why I started this podcast. I was so down and depressed, right before Mother's Day. And I thought I've just got to do something. Because I was writing about COVID for the New York Times. It was so depressing. And I just thought, I have got to do something uplifting and positive. And I thought, I'm going to find offspring of amazing mothers!

Erin Brockovich :

Well, I'm, you know, I'm so glad you are doing this. And in this moment, it's so tumultuous for us all.

Katie Hafner :

I know.

Erin Brockovich :

To have this reprieve, and a conversation with you. To look back on my mom. And that hope. And that light. And that determination. Makes me believe again today that that is the message I'm going to carry on. And we will persevere, and we will get through it.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah.

Erin Brockovich :

Exactly what my mom would always say to me.

Katie Hafner :

And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. I had editing help this week from Joseph Francis. Our theme song was composed and performed by Andrea Perry, and Paula Mangin is our artist in residence. If you have an amazing mother to suggest for the podcast, send an email to [email protected] Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Have a safe week, everyone. [[This transcript was proofread by Benjy Wachter.]]