For Such A Time As This - Fitzpatrick Shares His Story: Part 1
School Board Candidate Matthew J. Fitzpatrick shares his story...Part 1...
I was born and raised 20 miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, in the town of North Ridgeville. I am the middle child of five children born to Don and Mary Fitzpatrick. Neither of my parents had college degrees...but my mom did attend a postsecondary nursing program and become an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse). My dad became an independent insurance agent...which I found out later was code words for unemployed. My mom seemed to be working two and three jobs while we were growing up...sometimes working the night shift, or as a home healthcare nurse for severely disabled patients. We also took in one of the patients to live with us, and she became part of our family for a time. My dad was always working, and he worked hard, but the not-so-funny joke was that the check was always "in the mail". He had a brilliant mind, and he did get his Paralegal degree from SCC at the age 57, but he really didn't get to use his degree because he died of a heart attack at the age of 60.
My parents may not have had stellar college and career resumes while we were growing up, but they somehow raised five kids that all went to college. My older sister earned an Interior Design degree and still finds a way to fiddle in that realm. My older brother earned a Bachelor's degree in Business, and a Master's degree in Physical Education. He currently works in international finance and does sports camps around the world. His wife has spent almost her entire career teaching in Department of Defense schools around the world. My younger brother earned his Juris Doctorate and is currently a Circuit Court Judge in northern Florida. My younger sister earned her Master's degree in Human Resource and now works for the largest company in central Florida. Me...well, I received my Bachelor's degree in Social Science Education, and then, after 10 years of teaching, I went back to school and earned my Master's degree in Educational Leadership. Allow me to tell the story of how my family was able to overcome poverty, alcoholism and near homelessness to become positive contributors to society.
My grandfather died right before I was born, and so I took his name as my middle name…I was named Matthew John Fitzpatrick. My grandmother was Clara Noll Fitzpatrick. She was the first cousin of Chuck Noll. We lived on Noll Drive, and Dick Noll was the Mayor of North Ridgeville. We were all Browns fans, so we really didn’t want the Steelers to win many games. We were Irish, obviously, and we were raised Roman Catholic. My aunt was a nun and a teacher, but when her father died, she left the convent and took care of her mother. She continued to teach, and used the money she earned to pay for the tuition for all five of us kids to go to St. Peter’s Catholic School from 1st through 8th grade. Sadly, my Aunt Anne died right around 40 years old from a tumor in her brain. She was such a giver to all of her nieces and nephews.
We didn't have a whole lot growing up, but we had each other, and we never went without. I remember my mom and dad had a special deal with the IGA grocery store owner, where we would pick up the day-old bread and the expired meat...and it all tasted great to me. I was always given the bone to chew on, and I turned out to be the tallest. We were survivors.
Sports were very important to our family. We played football, basketball, baseball, track, and swimming. We were the only family that had a stone driveway for most of our young years, so we were lucky to a have a neighbor that always let us play basketball in their driveway. Basketball was my love...I wanted to get a college scholarship and then play in the NBA. I spent 2 or 3 hours every day playing basketball. When I thought about my future…I thought about basketball.
My dad was an alcoholic for much of my young life. He said he started drinking in high school because he was terribly shy and it helped him relax around the girls. What seemed to help him in his teens was not so helpful when he was married with small children. My dad would routinely stop at a couple bars almost every night to see his friends before he came home to his family. My mom would get very upset with him, and on at least one occasion she drove up to the bar and switched cars with him just to mess with him. I remember her locking him out of the house a few times, and latching the security chain on the front door so he couldn’t get in. He had to crawl through a basement window that night and sleep on the couch. My parents were always carting us around town for sporting events. My dad was always yelling at umpires and referees…and embarrassing my mom. My dad never yelled when everyone else yelled, he waited until everyone got quiet, and then he let the “zebra” have it. One coach had issues with my dad’s complaints about his coaching. He told my dad, “If you think you can do better, why don’t you coach the team.” My dad responded, “I supply the players.” Another team asked him to help coach just to get him under control. My dad loved sports, and he loved watching his kids play sports. My dad’s passion, strong sense of justice, and his often drunken state at games resulted in him being kicked out of his share of games.
When my mother was pregnant with her 5th child, my dad was at a company picnic, he was drunk, and he broke his leg playing a game…I think they were playing football. My mom was at the end of her rope. She was overwhelmed by life. She found herself looking for a way out, but she had a problem. She wanted to be a good Roman Catholic. As a good Catholic, she didn't believe in birth control, abortion, divorce or suicide. She was as trapped as a person can be by life. She had no way out from her miserable life, and things seemed like they were just getting worse and worse as the years went by. As she tells the story, she was trying to figure out a way to end her life without people knowing it was suicide, because good Catholics would never commit suicide, because it was believed you would go to hell. She was at the point where she didn't care about going to hell, she just didn't want any of her friends or family to think she went there. Catholics were always trying to compete with each other to show who was the better Catholic...and it just so happened that this crazy competition, to some extent, is what kept my mom alive. She poured her heart out to the Catholic priests and they told her to pray—they thought she wanted an abortion. She did pray, and shortly after considering such things in her heart, she was invited to a Bible study by a Lutheran friend, where she became a Christian. She now had hope. Her new found faith didn’t solver all of her problems, but it did give her hope, and it did keep her alive.
The rest of us were just along for the ride. My mom took us to Charismatic Renewal events…it was the early 70s…I think our family even got our picture in the paper. I seem to remember having my hands raised up during a song, and peaking out of one eye at a person taking a picture. I didn’t understand all that my mom was going through at the time, but this new stuff was certainly different from the standard once-a-week visit to St. Peter’s Catholic church.
My religious beliefs were shallow, at best. I had never read the Bible, and I found church to be very boring…a real challenge to stay awake for the mandatory 1 hour of weekly attendance. I was an altar boy for a few years…we weren’t paid for our services outside of doing weddings, but the church did take us to Cedar Point, a rollercoaster theme park in northern Ohio, once a year. I remember having a few internal religious rules that I tried to follow in order to go to heaven. One rule I had was that you shouldn’t get drunk—I think this rule must have been imparted by the struggles that mother had with my dad and his drinking. The other rule was that you should not have sex before marriage. I still remember attending a Sex Education meeting with my parents when I was in 7th grade, and the entire meeting seemed to revolve around a video about STD’s. I also remember my parents having a moment of “back and forth” discussion about birth control and the rhythm method…and how it didn’t work…at least not with my family. I didn’t follow everything they were talking about, but I left the meeting with a healthy fear of sex outside of marriage.
My mom had told my dad that if his drinking ever affected us kids, she was "outta here". She didn't say anything about divorce; she was just going to leave. Well, toward the end of my freshman year of high school, my dad's drinking started to affect us. My older sister was out with some friends and they were drinking and driving, and they flipped the car and probably should have all died. They survived and graduated in wheelchairs, but that was the last straw for my mom. That's when our lives went off-road.
We moved 60 miles away, to a town that seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere, to start a new life. We lived in a campground for a few months before we were able to get a house. Sleeping in the camper on the folding couch next to my other brother really taught me to appreciate my own bed. My mom and dad slept on the kitchen table that folded down into a bed, and my little brother and sister slept up in the top bunk. We had to take showers at the campground bathhouse every morning. We had to pay 10 cents to take a shower. Many times, the hot water heater was not on, and as the cold northern fall season set in, the showers were ice cold. I learned to appreciate hot showers on demand.
The following year, my junior year, we moved even further out...to a school that appeared to be surrounded by cornfields. I think moving around so much caused us to grow together, to some extent. We always began the school year by living in our camper for a few months. When we finally got a house the first time, I still remember how much I longed to go home and just lie in my bed in my room. By the time it was all over, I ended up attending a different high school each year, and the last move was the biggest of them all.
Before we make the big move out of Ohio, there was one conversation that I had that made an impact on me. I remember a conversation I had with one of my mom’s religious friends during my junior year that has stuck with me my entire life. My mom’s brothers and sister all had nicknames from when they were growing up – Chickie, Che-Che, Chatty, and Chipper…and now that my mom was a holy-roller, we called her Preachy Che-Che. My mom’s friend’s name was Evelyn…she was also a Holy-Roller, Revival War Horse…we called her “Rev Ev”. My mom took me over to her house for her to share something with me. I had always used the word “Awesome” to describe everything, and Rev Ev shared with me a Bible verse that said, “For the Lord Most High is awesome. He is the great King of all the earth.” She said that God was awesome. I smiled and agreed, but internally I was having a real problem with what she had said. I didn’t think god was awesome at the time. I was going through high school trying to follow my two rules to get to heaven—don’t have sex before marriage, and don’t get drunk—and it was kind of making me miserable. All my friends were living wild and free and having all sorts of fun, and I was worried about going to hell. It was a weird way to live…wanting to do things God disproved of…and walking as close to the line as possible and feeling I was pleasing God. It was a miserable state of existence. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I didn’t know so much about God, because then I could just enjoy myself and be guilt free without a fear of missing heaven.” The funny thing was, as I was wishing I didn’t know anything about God, I really didn’t know much about God—I never read the Bible or prayed…maybe once when my sister was in an accident. I didn’t see God as awesome.
We moved down to Florida in the summer of 1985. I was getting ready for my senior year of high school. My older brother and sister had already moved down to Ft. Lauderdale, where my older sister was going to school. My older brother wasn't going to a traditional school, but he was getting a degree in Day Labor at the University of Hard Knocks. He originally went to play basketball at a college in Ohio on a basketball scholarship, but he blew his knee out before Christmas of his freshman year, and then decided to drop out and move south.
Every option had dried up for my family back in Ohio--we couldn't pay our rent, one of our cars was repossessed, and there were no promising job opportunities on the horizon for my dad. I still remember one day when he allowed me to skip school one day and go with him into Columbus to check on a carpenter job. I remember a person asking him if he had any experience, and he said he was a rough carpenter. I guess that wasn't what they were looking for. I still can't figure out why he took me with him...he must have figured my woodworking skills brought some credibility to him as a carpenter. He didn't get the job...we were out of options...it was time to be bold and move south.
We packed up everything we had in our 19 foot camper and set off in our 1975 Cloudy Sky Blue Cadillac (my dad kept trying to touch up the paint...giving it the cloudy sky-blue effect)...we had our sights set on Orlando. We stopped at a campground that used to exist right off of I-4...right on West 33rd street and Rio Grande Avenue. It looked like a nice place to stop and stay. We had no idea where we were. The date was right around July 1st-3rd. I know this, because we all went to work "Day Labor" at Disney World on July 4th in order to pay the rent to stay at the campground. (My older brother's "Day-Labor" degree was paying off.)
That's right, we all spent July 4th working at Disney World. It was the most memorable 4th of July for my family. It was a time when we all pulled together as a family to find a way to survive. And survive we did.
Something else that happened at this time was the fact that my entire family started to go to a non-denominational church together. We had been on a “church-search” ever since we started moving around the state of Ohio and we were displaced from our home Catholic church that we had grown comfortable in. My mom saw Orlando Christian Center on TV when we lived in Ohio, and that was where she wanted to attend church when we moved to Orlando. The rest of us went along for the ride.
The church was huge...there must have been a couple thousand people in the crowd. I found it easier to stay awake during the messages. I was introduced to the Bible for the first time...I had gone to church religiously my entire life, but reading the Bible wasn't something on my list of things to do. The preacher made things interesting by bringing the Bible stories to life. At the time, I hadn’t really read many books at all, so just reading a book helped me academically. I remember the first book I read…it was the Book of Job. I, of course, pronounced it wrong. Job is pronounced like “Joe” with a “B” on the end. I don’t even know what attracted me to that book, maybe it was the weird name, but the first 3 chapters really grabbed me…intensity like I had never experienced from reading a book. It was a behind the scenes view of life, with God and the Devil having a moment of back and forth.
As the story goes, Job was a man that was blessed by God. God even bragged about Job to the Devil. The Devil challenged God, and said, “The only reason Job follows you is because you bless him and protect him. Take all that away and he will curse you to your face.” God, for whatever reason, took the Devil up on this challenge, and allowed the Devil to afflict Job. The Devil took Job’s wealth, his family…except for discouraging wife, and he took his health…causing him to have boils. (Don’t let anyone convince you that the Devil can’t cause you to get a big pimple on an important day…lol.) I remember reading this story and hoping that Job wouldn’t give up and prove the Devil right. I was sort of cheering Job on while I was reading. And that’s when a thought occurred to me. It was a question…”What about you? Will you trust God with your life and your happiness? You are cheering Job on, what about you? Are you cheering yourself on?” It wasn’t a voice I heard, it was just a thought that occurred in my mind that kind of turned the tables on me. Allow me to explain my state of mind at the time…and why I re-evaluated my life.
I was having a rough time adjusting to life in Florida—I had left a girlfriend behind in Ohio, which seemed to happen every time we moved from year to year…it was really getting old. School seemed to be a bit more rigorous in Florida, causing me to wonder if I was even going to be able to graduate. I think I remember having at least 2 study halls in Ohio in that school I attended out in the cornfields. And now, down in Florida at Lyman HS, I had to pass Physics Honors, Trigonometry, Analytical Geometry, English 4 Honors, Government and Economics Honors, Psychology Honors, and keyboarding/computers…all of this just to graduate. This was not going to be a casual waltz through my senior year like I was expecting in Ohio. On top of all of that, the love of my life, basketball, was not working out in Florida. I was looking forward to everything revolving around me during my senior year in Ohio. The Lyman HS team I joined during the 1985-86 year was pretty good—at least 7 deep. I started for much of the first half of the season, but things weren’t revolving around me. When I was moved to 6th man coming off the bench, I was too immature to handle it. How could someone get a college scholarship if they aren’t starting during their senior year? In a depressed state of discouragement, I quit the team. I was right around this time that I just happened to start reading about a character by the name of “Job”.
I decided to trust God with my life after reading the book of Job and having that weird thought in my mind about trusting God with my life and not giving up in the face of struggles and sorrow. I took the leap and believed what Jesus said about himself, and I accepted his sacrifice as the ransom payment for my sins. My life changed radically in terms of having a joy that I can’t explain. My heart was changed. No longer was I trying to walk as close to the line without breaking God’s “rules”…now I desired other things…I was set free. As I said before, I had already been trying to live by a couple of the basic rules of the Bible, but now I was learning about the God that loved people and wanted them to follow him—not forcing them into compliance, but to obey because it would lead to the best life possible—a life of joy, peace, love, and wisdom. I saw life from God’s perspective, much like when a child finally sees things from their parents’ perspective. I was experiencing life to the full. It was weird, but my whole family became Christians right around the same time…all five kids and my mom and dad. My dad even gave up drinking. It was a special time. My family was completely transformed.
To Be Continued...