When Patrick H. DeLeon, PhD, JD, was a child, some of his teachers predicted that he would never make it through college or even high school.
Given a sulfa-based drug to treat an infection as a baby during World War II, he lost most of his hearing, without anyone realizing until much later that he had a hearing problem. Until he got to Spanish class in college, he remembers, “I didn’t even know I couldn’t hear because I was very good at reading lips.”
DeLeon proved the doubters wrong. He not only made it through high school, but also went on to earn a college degree from Amherst in 1964, a doctorate in clinical psychology from Purdue in 1969, a master’s of public health from the University of Hawaii in 1973 and a law degree from Catholic University in 1980. In October, he retired as administrative assistant/chief of staff to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) after 38 years of service.
DeLeon’s Hawaii connection began in 1969, when the Connecticut native and his wife, Jean, moved to Hilo to train Peace Corps volunteers to serve in Fiji and the Philippines. He then worked as a staff psychologist at the Diamond Head Mental Health Center and Hawaii State Hospital. DeLeon came to Washington, D.C., as a public health intern in 1974 — on the first day of the Watergate hearings — and never left.
Although his lawyer parents expected him to practice law and seek elected office himself, DeLeon has spent his career supporting Inouye. “It was just a chance to make a difference in people’s lives,” says DeLeon, adding that his psychology training not only gave him substantive knowledge of such issues as education but also the know-how to ensure a smoothly functioning office. “More than anything,” he says of his work, “what I’m proudest of is changing priorities to address the needs of the forgotten.”
One such accomplishment grew out of a moment of personal anguish. When his young daughter was rushed to the hospital with meningitis, DeLeon and his wife discovered that emergency rooms weren’t well-equipped to handle either the physical or emotional needs of young children and their parents. “They told us she’d be dead by morning or brain-damaged for life,” says DeLeon. When his daughter — now a law school graduate — survived, DeLeon pushed to create a pediatric emergency medical service system to help ERs around the country provide appropriate physical and psychosocial care.
A friend to psychology
DeLeon hasn’t just served Inouye and the people of Hawaii. He has also served psychology, says Ellen Garrison, PhD, senior policy advisor at APA.
“Pat is a visionary and a trailblazer,” says Garrison. “He has made extraordinary contributions over the years to APA, to the field of psychology and to our nation.”
She points to DeLeon’s successful efforts to expand opportunities for psychology practice through prescription privileges and Medicare, to increase federal support for the Graduate Psychology Education program and to initiate APA’s Congressional Fellowship Program. In addition to being a strong voice for psychologists and other nonphysician providers, adds Garrison, “he has worked to heighten recognition of psychology as a science and to address the needs of underserved populations in federal legislation.”
DeLeon has also been active in APA governance, serving as APA’s president in 2000. One of his fondest memories of his term is having persuaded folk singer Pete Seeger to be the keynote speaker at APA’s convention that year. At one point, he remembers, “it took me 45 minutes to get from my hotel room to the elevator because people kept grabbing me and telling how much hearing Pete Seeger meant to them.”
DeLeon has amassed a mountain of awards and other honors from the psychology community and beyond, including two APA presidential citations and an APA Div. 55 (American Society for the Advancement of Pharmacotherapy) award named after him to recognize his efforts to advance both pharmacotherapy and the careers of young psychologists. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2008.
Upon DeLeon’s retirement, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the mayor of the County of Hawaii proclaimed Aug. 28 Pat DeLeon Day. “It’s nice when you’ve spent a lot of time in your life trying to change things, and people tell you that they appreciate it while you can still hear them,” DeLeon says.
DeLeon doesn’t yet know what’s next for him. For now, the frequent traveler — who just passed the million-mile mark on United Airlines — plans to stay home in Bethesda, Md. There he’ll enjoy his new granddaughter Lexi, who is one of the reasons he retired. DeLeon describes asking his wife when Lexi would be walking. Her answer was a light-bulb moment for him: She already had, two weeks earlier.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.