Share story

“Call me Pat,” Patricia Herbold told me when we got on the phone the other day. Those three words told me everything.

For Herbold, 73, is a woman who has answered to many monikers, each one a career in itself: U.S. Ambassador to Singapore. Commissioner of the Washington State Gambling Commission. Chairman of the King County Republican Party.

Just last month, Herbold added another title: Recipient of the prestigious Horatio Alger Award from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. Each year, 12 people are honored for succeeding “in spite of adversity,” and for encouraging young people to go after their dreams and enter college.

I glanced over the news of the award and stopped hard on the phrase “in spite of adversity.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Turns out the woman with the platinum resume, the homes in Bellevue and Phoenix and the long, healthy marriage spent part of her childhood in an orphanage.

Herbold’s father had a gambling addiction and left the family. Her mother tried to raise Herbold and her four siblings alone, but couldn’t. So she left them at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Ohio, where Herbold lived from the time she was in fifth grade until after eighth grade.

Herbold made peace with it all long ago, and recalled that time in her life as if it were a well-worn recipe: father gone, five kids, no skills, tough times. Make a home in a building full of strangers, learn to do your chores and study hard, and stay for three years. Return to your mother determined to make your life better, and then never let opportunity pass you by.

“There are a lot of business people who had a lot of rough childhoods and became successful,” Herbold told me, turning the attention away from herself. “The goal with the Horatio Alger Award is that we serve as mentors and inspirations to the men and women they give scholarships.”

There is plenty about Herbold that inspires — even though she plays down her time at St. Joseph’s.

“I learned early on that it was a matter of surviving in that environment,” she recalled. “It wasn’t cruel, but it wasn’t home … It was learning to get along. Study hard, work hard and be trustworthy, and whatever life threw at me, I would survive.”

It’s a sensibility that she looks for in those who apply for scholarships from the Herbold Foundation, the Bellevue-based nonprofit she started with her husband, former Microsoft executive Robert J. Herbold. The foundation has awarded four or five scholarships a year since its inception in 2002.

“In addition to grades and extracurricular, I try to focus on what they had to deal with as they were growing up,” Herbold said. “None of them have been in an orphanage; most of them still have parents, but who are divorced or came from a foreign country and had very low-paying jobs. My father just took off.”

Herbold didn’t dream of what her life would become.

Rather, her gift was being awake for and alert to the opportunities presented to her, starting with the sign-up sheet for a college scholarship exam that she started to pass to a classmate before pausing and signing up herself.

It won her a full ride to Edgecliff College in Cincinnati, where she intended to be an art major. But after taking a job in the chemistry department and taking some classes, she turned her focus to math and chemistry.

While working for the government after college, she noticed that the men who had the same time on the job as she did were getting raises. She asked her supervisor why, and he told her they had taken more math classes. So she signed up for night school.

She met and married her husband, who had been her trigonometry instructor (he was working off a Ford Foundation grant), started a family — and entered law school.

“I don’t know whether my background had anything to do with it, but I didn’t grow up with the typical role models as to what women do and don’t do,” she said. “I wanted to learn some more.”

She entered politics in a grass-roots way: Her neighbors in Montgomery, Ohio were embroiled in a fight over covenant violations (boats and RVs in driveways) and Herbold the real estate lawyer was enlisted to write letters, then join the homeowners association, then coordinate with the City Council.

Councilmembers and the mayor approached her to run for City Council — another opportunity — so she did it, won and was later elected mayor of Montgomery.

When her husband joined Microsoft, Herbold moved the family to Bellevue and worked as a lawyer. A member of then-Gov. Gary Locke’s cabinet suggested Herbold when Locke was looking to fill some agency seats with Republicans.

“They mentioned the Gambling Commission, and because of my father’s problem, I thought it would be an interesting one to belong to,” Herbold said with a quiet laugh. “It piqued my interest because of my background.”

In 2002, local Republicans expressed the belief that the King County party “wasn’t helping people the way it should have and give enough support to people running,” Herbold said. “They formed a committee and dropped (running for) the chairmanship on me.”

She won 72 percent of the vote.

“I knew Washington was not going to vote for a Republican president, but we could get some precinct officers and get more people to vote.”

The following Monday, Karl Rove called to congratulate her.

Another opportunity. Herbold invited Rove to speak at the party’s Lincoln Day Dinner, and he accepted.

“We came through the side door to the ballroom,” Herbold recalled, “and he said, ‘Whoa! Where’d they all come from?’ ”

In 2005, about a year after left the Republican Party office, Rove called her with a question: “How would you like to serve your country?” Herbold was appointed ambassador to Singapore by President George W. Bush. She left that position in 2009 and resumed her duties at the Herbold Foundation.

Herbold, who is mother of three and a grandmother, played softball on a senior team and during the winter, played indoor volleyball. Despite her snowbird status in Arizona, she doesn’t have the patience for golf. But she loves to read: “Flags of Our Fathers.” “I am Malala.” “Killing Jesus.”

“I am officially retired!” Herbold said with a laugh. But she will travel to Washington, D.C., in April to collect her award and meet with Horatio Alger Scholarship recipients.

What will she tell them?

“Life has these interesting twists and turns,” Herbold reflected. “And if you are afraid to pursue an option, sometimes you deprive yourself of something wonderful.”

Nicole Brodeur:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.