‘A gift to the community’; Friends, family remember former Sen. Patricia Piper
Published 10:55 am Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Patricia Piper wore many different hats over her life and time in office. She was a nun and a politician, but most of all she was known as a community staple who saw everyone as equals.
“She was a friend to everybody, but especially the little children, poor people, the downtrodden,” said Piper’s sister, Paulette Schwen. “She just [got along] with all those types of people and loved them so much.”
“She was kind of like a voice for them,” she added.
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Patricia Kathryn Piper, 81, formerly of Austin, Minnesota, died on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, at Cottagewood Senior Community in Rochester.
Piper grew up in Blue Earth and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from the College of St. Teresa in Winona, and a Master’s Degree in Religious Education from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Piper was a Franciscan Sister for 22 years and taught grade school as a primary teacher at St. Augustine in Austin, St. Francis in Rochester and several other parishes in southern Minnesota. She also taught courses at Riverland Community College.
Piper started the Christian Education Center in Austin in 1968 and was the director through 1994. She left the order after 22 years, because as Schwen said, Piper felt she could reach more people outside of the sisterhood.
“She loved the sisters but she just thought she could reach out more and connect with other people too,” Schwen said.
Everybody knew her
Piper made friends everywhere, and as Jack and Diane Keenan said it, “Everybody knew her.”
“It would be impossible not to know Pat,” Jack said. “One of the most outgoing people I’ve ever met.”
Diane met Piper volunteering on the Christian Education Center board and volunteering at the Philomathian Book Store. The couple recalled Piper helping everyone, including immigrants who came to Austin with nothing. Piper would invite people who had nowhere else to go over for holidays such as Thanksgiving, and she lent her apartment to people when she was away.
“The thing that always amazes me, was every person was just as equal to everybody else regardless of what religion you were, what nationality you were, how much wealth or any of that kind of stuff, meant nothing to her,” Diane said.
“There wasn’t a person she wouldn’t give money to, anything to, her time to,” she added.
“Time is the most valuable asset we have and she was so giving of it,” he said. “That was her passion and mission in life.”
Jack said the first time he met Piper, he was left with an impression of who she was without much conversation needed.
“She was always one that made me feel so good about giving because she was appreciative, and just her eye contact, you could tell it was from the heart,” he said.
“She was a gift to the community, and yet I don’t think she knew in her own mind how much she was treasured,” he added.
Time in office
Piper served as a Democrat in the Minnesota House from 1983 to 1986 in District 31B, in the state Senate from 1987 to 1992 in District 31 and in District 27 from 1993 to 2000. While in office, Piper focused on helping those with no voice. She had a strong interest in early childhood, vying for many bills in that area.
Piper’s focus on early child care stuck out to current District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin,
“Recently we’ve all came to that same conclusion [about the importance of early childcare], but I think Pat was a real pioneer and was ahead of her time because she was talking about this before anyone else was,” Sparks said.
Piper was also focused on heath care, and Sparks said she worked hard to set up some of the health care programs currently in place to better Minnesota in health care. Schwen said her sister was on many committees, even meeting with farmers and working with daycare centers to improve early childhood learning. She hoped people would learn from her sister’s kindness and generosity.
“One of compassion and again just seeing the need to reach out to people who didn’t really have anybody to represent them or give them a chance,” Schwen said.
Sparks appreciated Piper’s advice as he came into his political career and her’s came to a close.
“She kind of took me under her wing,” he said.
“I learned to be very respectful and to listen to everyone,” he continued. “And make sure that you respond to them, that there’s always two sides to every story, and make sure that you make everybody feel important and try to make a difference in their lives whenever possible.”
He and other former colleagues of Piper’s agreed she was a compassionate person who worked hard and was a great senator, fighting for issues that weren’t yet on other’s radars and caring about everyone.
Fighting through illness to fight for people
Piper suffered from Alzheimer’s for several years before she passed away, and Schwen said one of Piper’s biggest frustrations was that she couldn’t talk to people.
This wasn’t the first time she battled illness though, as Schwen explained Piper battled cancer while she was in office. But through the chemotherapy and the fight, Piper continued to work in office. Schwen said her sister even had a cot in her office so she could rest between sessions. People also sent her hats to wear, and she had many different hats throughout her time. Schwen said everyone respected her greatly for continuing to work through the difficult times. But Piper never forgot those she worked for, and Schwen said she included everyone in her prayers.
“She gave up so many different things, but she was always on the lookout for helping the underdog or maybe the people that others didn’t have time for,” Schwen said. “Pat made time, she had time.”
“I’m so glad she’s in heaven where she belongs and getting her eternal reward because she sure deserves it,” she added.
For more about Piper’s time in office, visit www.leg.state.mn.us/legdb/fulldetail?ID=10537.