Well Suited

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Pat helps Michelle Miller pick out a new outfit in the Dress for Success store at Northgate.
Pat helps Michelle Miller pick out a new outfit in the Dress for Success store at Northgate.

Deep inside Northgate Mall a bell rings inside the office of Dress for Success (DFS) of the Triangle, symbolizing a fresh start – a job offer – for a woman who really needed it. As of this month, 5,000 Durham women have passed through the program on the way from hopelessness to self-sustainability thanks to one woman with a vision and the experience and passion to start something big – Pat Nathan.

Raised by Durham

When you meet Pat, it’s easy to mistake her for a lady who lunches. She’s so beautifully put together in slim black slacks and a tailored jacket with the collar up in a jaunty way. One would not look at her and first think of retired Dell executive – the only woman on Mike Dell‘s executive committee.

Pat was born in Lumberton, but she says she was always destined to be 100 miles up the road in Durham. Her mother, Dorothy McMichael Nathan, was born at Watts Hospital to young parents who divorced soon after her birth. Dorothy and her mother lived in a boarding house on Markham and Broad streets run by Miss Hattie Werner. Dorothy’s mother remarried a traveling salesman and went off with him, leaving 8-year-of Dorothy in the care of Miss Hattie at the boarding house. Pat says that Durham essentially raised her mother. Dorothy eventually met and married Marx Nathan, a UNC basketball player from Chapel Hill, and they settled in Lumberton.

Lumberton was where Pat was born, but not to Dorothy and Marx. She was 5 weeks old when the Nathans adopted her. They were always honest about the fact that she was a “chosen” child. The Nathans eventually adopted a second child, Bob, when Pat was 4. Pat still remembers going with her parents to Robeson County social services to choose Bob. She chokes up recounting her brother’s suicide over a girl when he was just 21.

Pat knew she was well-loved by her parents. Once, in a childhood fit, she screamed, “You’re not my mother.” Later that day, she found a dress her mother had sewn her with a note attached to it: “Not flesh of my flesh. Not bone of my bone, but somehow miraculously still my own. Don’t ever forget for one minute that you didn’t grow under my heart, but in it.”

Climbing the Ladder

Pat chose Meredith for college so she could take her horse to school. She thought about being a vet but ended up getting a degree in chemistry. Her first job was in a lab at N.C. State, where she worked on a master’s in statistics. Pat excelled in jobs that were traditionally held by men.

Data General eventually wooed her away to do quality control on the line of the printed circuit board wet lab. Data General became EMC, and that was where Dell found her and offered her a job. She moved to Austin, Texas, and started as the director of supplier quality, eventually moving to London. In the UK, she met her now husband, Mervyn Groves, an Irishman working at Sanyo on an online dating site. They had a fabulous time exploring Europe together for three and a half years. Pat also started a chapter of WITI – Women in Technology International – just like she had in Austin. A woman banker suggested a suit drive for DFS to Pat as she sought a community outreach project for WITI, her first introduction to the organization.

Following her London Dell assignment, she moved back to Austin, marrying Mervyn in 2005. The two quit their jobs, bought an RV and traveled the country looking for the right place to settle down into retirement.

They had a few criteria: a place with diversity, a lively theater scene and “a good hair city,” as Pat calls a place with the right weather. With her parents living outside Pinehurst and Pat’s mother’s stories of how good Durham had been to her as a child, it was clear that the Triangle was the place to be. Pat and Mervyn found a house in Durham County and settled into making it their own.

‘I Look Like a Lady’ 

Ater driving through some less than ideal parts of Durham while also seeing the city on a number places to live” lists, Pat felt there was a big disconnect and remembered her DFS days in London. She wanted to volunteer but discovered that the closest chapter was in Charlotte. So she applied to start a chapter of her own. Her business experience helped her slog through the difficult business plan stage in record time.

On April 1, 2008 – with the paperwork approved and $10,000 of Pat’s own money invested – the DFS doors at Northgate Mall opened. Donations of suits and work clothes flowed in. By the last week in May, Pat had her first clients, two sisters. They started by giving them interview suits, and a couple of months later DFS of the Triangle added a job retention component, which helped train women on how to be good employees. Then came career coaching with resume prep help, job search planning and mock interviews.

Only women referred to DFS through social services agencies and charities like Durham Crisis Response Center and Urban Ministries can become clients, but today several of the women who were once clients are now volunteers.

Early on one recent Friday afternoon, a client named Jacqueline came in, revealing that she had a job interview first thing Monday morning. Pat quickly pulled some suits. When Jacqueline emerged from the dressing room to see herself in the mirror, she burst into tears. “Miss Pat,” she cried, “I look like a lady.” Jacqueline got the job on Monday.

Pat has been the unpaid executive director of DFS for the past five years. A year and a half ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which thankfully is in remission now. Her perseverance and drive have made her successful, but her compassion is really the lifeblood of DFS. “Whatever it takes – this is the right thing to be doing,” Pat says. “But if I knew how hard it would be, I never would have done it. I’m glad I didn’t know.”

Durham needs to ring a bell to thank Pat Nathan for choosing us. DM

Ed. Note: This article first appeared in our October/November 2013 issue.

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Dana Lange

Dana, a beloved member of the Durham Magazine team since our launch and the past board chair of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, highlights her fellow Durhamites making a difference by giving back.
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