“I was born and raised in Moline, Illinois. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they both worked hard to climb out of poverty. My dad was a self-taught tool and die maker and supported our family of eight. I couldn’t wait to leave school each day and work in his shop. I was a chubby loner with no interest in school. I wasn’t good at sports and didn’t think I was smart. I often sat alone on the playground reading books. My parents wanted better for me than what they had, but I dropped out of high school at 16 because I was in a hurry to grow up and experience life. I didn’t have a plan. I hung out with the wrong crowd and felt invisible to everyone.
My first job was waitressing at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant close to our house. I didn’t have a car, so I would hike up the embankment, climb over the fence, then walk across the interstate to work. I made 90 cents an hour. I saved $400 in tips and took those dollar bills, quarters, dimes and nickels to the car lot to buy my first car. The salesman wasn’t thrilled with my payment, but I was proud. The car was a 1968 Buick special—we called it the ‘green bomb.’ I had wheels, so I took a second full-time waitressing job. We wore checkered uniforms with aprons, nylons, white shoes and hairnets. I worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and would get home in time to watch The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack. Those were fun days, and I came out of my shell.
I met a guy who was a high school dropout and didn’t have a job. We got married when he was 16, and I had just turned 18. We didn’t know each other very long, but I had two babies by age 20. Neither of us had an education. We were in and out of jobs and moving often as the recession of the late 70s pounded the Midwest. I got my GED when I was 22 and realized I like to learn, but it was still hard to find a job.
We moved to Rockport, Missouri, and both of us went to work at a meat plant. My husband knew how to use a knife to cut and clean meat. I was sent to the kill floor— another name for the slaughterhouse. The cows came off the truck and were killed in that room. It was violent, bloody, and difficult to watch. The cows came in hanging upside down by their back legs. The first step was to bleed the animals; my job was to use a broom and push the blood to the blood pit. I also picked up hooves and threw them on the moving conveyor belt. I was the only female on the kill floor. It wasn’t a nice workplace, but I knew how to be tough on the outside. I was moved up to other departments that weren’t as bad.
We were both laid off before Christmas and moved in with my sister-in-law. I had my tubes tied, but still got pregnant with our fourth child. My youngest son is my miracle baby, but when he was almost three, my husband abandoned us. It was too much for him. The failure of my marriage was my rock bottom, but I knew I had survived past failures and working in a slaughterhouse. I was still alive with four children I adored. I held on to this quote by Theodore Roosevelt: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ I had an old typewriter and a bicycle with a baby seat.
Thank God Iowa had good welfare. I applied for food stamps and moved into a low-rent apartment with air conditioning and heat. I rode my bike to the community college and found I could get full tuition, books, and daycare paid for. I also got a part-time job in the adult education department. An instructor told me I was smart and could do anything I set my mind to. No one had ever told me that, and I took it to heart. I still remember those words and encourage others when I can. Putting on that cap and gown and walking across the stage to receive my college diploma was one of my proudest moments. My daughter helped care for her three younger brothers—I couldn’t have done this without her.
My parents moved to Baldwin County. I came down to visit and fell in love with the area. I finished school and moved here with my kids in March 1989. I still didn’t have a car, so my parents drove to Clarinda, Iowa, and picked us up in their Cutlass Supreme. My mom sat in the backseat with the four kids on the 22-hour drive. We moved in with my parents in Foley, and I waited tables at The Spot Restaurant. We started over with only the clothes on our backs, but it was the best decision I ever made.
I got a secretarial job at the United States Sports Academy in Daphne and went to night school at the University of Mobile to get my bachelor’s degree. I met my future husband in class. He walked up, handed me a business card, and said, ‘Hello, I’m Gene Pate.’
When my kids’ dad left us, he said I would never find anyone else to love me. I believed him. That changed when Gene married me and raised the standard for my family. He made life better for all of us. He was a home builder and built our house. Moving into a brand-new home with brand-new appliances felt like a dream. I also started my own computer consulting business and got a master’s degree in management. Gene was 18 years older and started showing signs of health issues. We were both self-employed and didn’t have health insurance. So I went to work as an administrative assistant with the City of Foley to get insurance for us.
Gene passed away ten years ago. We were married for 21 years, and I lost myself when he died. I struggled and tried to fill the empty and lonely spaces. I got away from the church and the real me. I am finally coming out of the grief of losing him. I just moved into a new home, and my 11 grandchildren are coming home for Christmas.
Every morning I put a different scripture on my refrigerator. Today’s is: Seek you first, the kingdom of God and all his righteousness and all these things shall follow. I am excited for my future. I am trying to join Billy Graham’s Rapid Response team to help communities after disasters. God uses our adversity and failure to help others. He saved me and used my past. He has given me second, third, and fourth chances.
My kids think I walk on water, but they are the ones who motivate me to keep going. I do the best I can to take care of them.”
(home-made dog treats)