Pattie Waldbillig has spent more than 40 years trying to change the world. Nothing short of an activist, her advocacy and actions for global social justice aren’t slowing down anytime soon.
Waldbillig, secretary at psychological services, has worked on so many causes for so long, even she can’t find a point from where it all began. It’s the snapshots of her work, for example, being a safe house for young men traveling to Canada to escape the military draft for the Vietnam War, that add up to an impressive repertoire of social activism.
“I knew some people, who knew some people, and we all belonged to Bea Community, a floating Parish in Greater Cincinnati. They asked us if we would harbor one person, and I said ‘Fine.’ At that point, if you were Catholic, you couldn’t get a deferment. You couldn’t be a conscientious objector to the war and be a Roman Catholic,” she says. As for peace marches, “my husband, Urban, and I would never march in a protest together so if one of us got arrested, the other could look after the kids.”
Waldbillig’s most memorable experience came through her contacts with César Chávez. Farm worker, labor leader and founder of United Farm Workers, Chavez headed a farm workers’ strike and boycott of grapes and lettuce in the 1970s and ’80s as a demand for fair wages.
“I still have trouble with grapes,” says Waldbillig.
Waldbillig was called by Fr. John Bank from Bea to shelter Chávez during his stay in Cincinnati. She agreed, in spite of the fact that Chávez was under the scrutiny of the FBI and reportedly had a mob contract on his life.
“No one was allowed in the house unless they knew the password,” Waldbillig recalls from Chavez’s first stay at her house. “We couldn’t talk on the phone unless we were careful about what we said. No one was allowed to cook his food but his one bodyguard, but I could cook because it was my house.” Waldbillig also remembers putting blankets over the windows so no one could see inside.
Waldbillig was drawn to Chávez and his cause by his charisma and commitment to justice. “He walked the talk. He was so nonviolent. You felt this peace when you were around him, just absolutely drawn to him,” she says. With Chávez’s comings and goings from Cincinnati, Waldbillig’s time with the labor leader was short and precious. “I loved having breakfast with César. There wouldn’t be anyone around, and we would just sit and talk. We talked about the governor of California, and he would tell me about when he was in the Navy. We didn’t talk about grapes.”
It may seem surprising, given her peaceful activism, that Waldbillig is also a Civil War buff. How can that happen? “That’s a question I get all the time,” she says. “The Civil War is history.” With about 350 books in her house about the Civil War alone, she says. “I’m about to be run out of the house with books.”
Ironically, when she needs relief from stress, Waldbillig watches the movie “Gettysburg.” Hearing 40 cannons firing clears her head, she says. “Some people turn on background music, I turn on ‘Gettysburg.’ After I listen to [the cannons] a couple of times, I’m not stressed anymore.”
Waldbillig was a Civil War re-enactor with the 5th Ohio Light Artillery Unit, performed on the Perryville Battlefield in Kentucky. Her studies in Civil War history lie mostly in civilian matters, like the U.S. Sanitary Commission and Mother Bickerdyke’s hospital administrations. From this, Waldbillig got into Civil War cooking. In fact, she loves cooking, in general, and has a special flair for Sicilian cuisine. “I can cook Italian like a real Italian,” she says.
At Xavier, Waldbillig’s hybrid of life experience, compassion and ability to work well with others is fitting for her therapeutic job at Sycamore House. “Part of where I am here is not that academic. My job at Xavier goes along what I do and who I am, how I am. I’m a people person.”