I avoid writing about work, but this week UC Berkeley made the news for a tragic reason: our lead attorney, Christopher Patti, was killed by a hit-and-run driver (suspect since arrested) while biking in Sonoma County last Sunday morning.
One of his colleagues called that evening to let me know. I texted the news to my co-workers in Risk Services, chatted briefly with my boss, wandered the house in a daze, slept poorly, and functioned with my mind elsewhere the rest of the week.
I wasn’t friends with Chris. We didn’t get together outside work. But at work, we were close companions. We either exchanged emails or were part of the same email conversation about a hundred times per week. And then of course we were often in meetings (and sometimes brutal mediations) together.
For these reasons, people associated us. Chris and Andy, Chris and Andy. After one crisis, I debriefed with the chief risk officer for the University of California system and she said, “I thought about sending reinforcements, which we often do for other campuses. But then I thought, Chris and Andy are at Berkeley, they’ve got this.”
That’s just one illustration of how the association worked to my benefit — because I was very much the junior partner.
Although I don’t bring a lot of ego to work (it leads to unhappiness when I do), I know I’ve proven myself at the higher education equivalent of the big leagues, and therefore I operate with confidence. I feel there aren’t many staff people on campus smarter and more knowledgeable about the organization than I am.
Chris was one of those exceptions.
I always hesitated before disagreeing with him, because going against him was like stepping into the batter’s box against Koufax. But when circumstance dictated, I took my swings. Every now and then I managed a weak grounder. A few times I put enough wood on the ball to reach the outfield. Once or twice I actually smacked a hit. But for the most part, I was Mario Mendoza up there, flailing haplessly at fastballs down the middle.
The only consolation was that most everyone else — including some really sharp attorneys — had the same experience. None of us begrudged him, because he struck us out with neither arrogance nor malice. He was just a star pitcher helping his team win. And among his more remarkable feats at UC Berkeley (a highly contentious workplace, in case you doubted) was the universal respect he maintained despite sitting in one of the hottest seats on campus.
At this age everyone has been through a few unsettling deaths. Our losses remind us how important it is to treasure every moment and every person close to us. But time passes, the grief inevitably diminishes — a good thing, as it allows us to function — and we forget. (At least I do.) So we’re shocked anew each time someone suddenly dies and we’re forced to remember that we are vulnerable, that everything can be taken from us in an instant, and that even the disadvantaged among us have much to be grateful for.
Chris’s passing reminded me of two other things. The first is the risk all of us who exercise on public thoroughfares face from inattentive, impatient, or intoxicated drivers. As a society we have fetishised the risk of terrorism but have ignored the risk of bad driving, which is many orders of magnitude worse, causing over 30,000 deaths and countless injuries per year. I ignore this risk because I must; otherwise I’d have to stop running for distance or go to some joyless gym and run on a machine.
But the second thing it reminded me of is more positive: I’m not finished yet. And when I grow up, I want to be just as good as Chris.
By the way: the photo of Chris used by the Press-Democrat and other media doesn’t do him justice. He had a lot more hair, a lot more color, and a lot more presence.