The nation knows Patricia “Patti” Morton as a trailblazer, an accomplished and elegant globetrotter who served as the first-ever female Diplomatic Security special agent in the State Department.
Jean Bluhm remembers Morton as her best friend for 75 years, dating back to their middle school days in Napavine.
This week the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Institute recognized Morton — who died last October at age 84 — as a “Hero of U.S. Diplomacy.”
“She showed us what we can all achieve with our intellectual, moral and physical courage in service to the mission of advancing the interests of the American people and their safety,” said Foreign Service Institute Director Ambassador Daniel B. Smith, speaking during an online tribute.
I spoke with Bluhm, who now lives in Chehalis, about the girl she met the summer of her sixth grade year, in the mid-1940s. Her first memory of Morton was as a star pitcher on the town’s softball team. Among all the boys and girls, she was one of the best. That held true for Morton throughout her life, as she surmounted summits metaphorically in Washington, D.C., and literally in Nepal and Africa.
“The woman could do anything,” Bluhm said. “She was remarkable.”
She grew up as a hardworking farm girl outside Napavine. She was always a good-natured go-getter. Bluhm remembers that the two of them decided to raise money to buy a new piano for the Baptist church in Napavine; the old one was so worn out, the ivory had been broken off all the keys.
Older women in the church felt no urgency, saying, “the Lord will provide.”
“Patti said, ‘Well, we can help him,’” Bluhm recalls. The two of them canned food and held a bazaar, raising enough money for that new piano.
“Everything she saw, she was willing to try,” Bluhm said.
The two of them graduated from Napavine High School in the early 1950s. They attended Centralia College together, then Western State College in Bellingham.
Morton then went on to work as a secretary for Gov. Al Rosellini. She began her career with the U.S. State Department in 1965.
Her first overseas assignment at age 28 was in Kathmandu, Nepal. She insisted on having her beloved convertible shipped over for her to drive while in the country. She told The Chronicle in 1967 that she lived in a palace that had been converted to apartments: “My share includes a 90-foot balcony.”
Next she went to Kinshasa, then in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While her job was a secretary, she rose through the ranks and became the deputy post security officer (which came with a raise). By 1969 she had taken a post in Cameroon, where she enjoyed photographing the scenery, including a herd of goats right outside the front door of the embassy. Then she went to Singapore from 1970 to 1972, where in addition to secretary she served as the embassy’s protocol officer.
She continued to be noticed for her skill and savvy.
While in Singapore, she received an invitation to “stop by” the State Department’s security office in Washington, D.C., next time she was in town. That turned into a job interview where she was asked how she felt about carrying a weapon, among other questions.
In 1972 she became the State Department’s first female diplomatic security special agent.
Being the first came with challenges, Smith said, which she faced with grace, focus and commitment.
The all-male security force didn’t know what to do with her. Her name wasn’t picked for duty until a supportive supervisor removed first names from the duty list. Then, listed only as “Morton,” without the “Patti,” she was picked. When she showed up for duty, after much discussion, she was assigned to guard the women’s bathroom.
The department did not issue gun holsters that would fit a woman, so Morton would carry her Office of Security-issued .357 Magnum pistol in a dark blue clutch bag.
“Her can-do, get-the-job-done, don’t-complain spirit was really emblematic of her character,” said National Museum of American Diplomacy Associate Curator Kathryn Speckart. (Morton later donated that historic blue clutch to the museum, along with her Vietnamese diplomatic ID, a used paper target from the shooting range and other items from her life.)
She served in Vietnam as America’s first-ever female regional security officer. As such, she wrote the evacuation plan for the American embassy in Vietnam. To her chagrin she was ordered to evacuate several weeks before Saigon fell in April 1975. She wanted to be there until the end, if and when it came.
While serving in Vietnam, her marksmanship skills (including with a bazooka) earned such respect from the Marines guarding the embassy that they first gave her the nickname that lives on today: “Pistol Packin’ Patti.” They also gave her a gift of a camouflage uniform with matching hair-band.
After Vietnam she went to the Netherlands, where she again served as regional security officer. Eventually she settled in Washington, D.C., where her protective details included providing security for the Princess of Monaco, the famous actress Grace Kelly.
In 1981 she joined the Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights as the deputy director. She simultaneously served as the Federal Women’s Programs Manager. She put a priority on training people to protect themselves. She used toy cars to show evasion techniques, and she carried a section of a consulate window with a bullet embedded in it to illustrate the real dangers diplomats faced overseas.
She held a variety of high-level positions until her retirement from the state department in 1994.
“Patti Morton did make it easier for those of us who have followed in her footsteps,” said Diplomatic Security Training Deputy Assistant Secretary Wendy Bashnan.
Her remarkable life lives on in another mighty tradition — the Centralia College Distinguished Alumnus program. When that program was conceived in the 1970s, the college’s then-public information officer, Gordon Aadland, had her in mind along with kid from Boistfort, Gordon Sweany, who passed through Centralia College on his way to becoming CEO of Safeco Insurance.
Sweany was named the college’s first Distinguished Alumnus in 1978, and Morton received the honor in 1979.
Bluhm, who is working on a book about her friend’s life based on the decades of letters they wrote to one another, hopes that Morton’s memory lives on as an inspiration: “To show the young people, you can do it, you know?”
Brian Mittge lives not far from the Napavine-area farm where Patti Morton got her start on a remarkable life. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.