Pat Wynn Brown firmly believes that you can change the world with 44 cents. Sending a letter to just one someone will make that someone's day and change that someone's world. And that's precisely how the world is changed-one person at a time, one stamp at a time, one act of love at a time. (Plus, she notes, if you buy a Forever stamp, the cost of changing the world will never be subject to inflation.)
This is precisely how the Columbus comedienne boils down life, in delicious, bitesized bits of wisdom-never a know-it-all, but always knowing. And always funny.
She is a 58-year-old Irish redhead filled with vibrance and vigor and opinion, but balanced with thoughtfulness and compassion and grace. She is quirky and hilarious and very, very deep. She's a cheerleader for everyone, a stranger to no one, the type of woman who could lunch at a table with a 6-year-old, the President and someone's drunk uncle-and assure that everyone not only got along, but also had a famous time.
She's the type of person people gush about but have difficulty describing, because she's just so Patti. After a few attempts at bottling her into words, her younger brother Rob finally comes up with a valiant attempt.
"Every party, every time you go out, every restaurant, everywhere you go, she's going to be the center of whatever situation," he says. "And everybody goes happily along the way with her." But perhaps longtime friend Debbie Phillips, an author and former Columbus newspaper reporter, says it best: "She's really a force."
Pat Wynn grew up a good Catholic girl in Columbus, tightly woven into the fibers of a giant extended family, so respectful (afraid?) of nuns that she still feels guilty when she sits with her legs crossed at the knees instead of the ankles. ("Because clearly you can see that this would drive a man crazy," she deadpans, sitting in her living room one day wearing a Nike top and workout pants.)
She started dating her lifelong love Steve Brown at Bishop Ready High School, followed him to Ohio University and has been married to him for 37 years. She calls him her forever boyfriend, and he still buys her gifts on the anniversary of their first date. They have one son, 31-year-old Wynn, and live in a charming house in Clintonville where Pat parks her Volkswagen bug (green one!), cultivates a colorful garden of flowers and bakes goodies for her neighbors. (For the record, "She's learned to cook really well," Steve says. "And that's trial by error.")
Pat spent years as a teacher and speech therapist to hearing- impaired children.
Then, nearing 40, she switched careers, writing a humor column in a local weekly newspaper that would run for 10 years, and publishing "Momma Culpa," a short book on the 83 mistakes she made as a mother.
Eventually, people started asking Pat to speak at events. She was thrilled at the chance to fulfill a childhood dream of performing, but had one minor obstacle-stage fright. Nerves knotted her stomach. But the laughter she drew (along with the Imodium she swallowed) eased her fears. Eventually, she started writing comedy shows with singing, dancing and audience participation. One day at the beauty shop, while watching women gab with their hairdressers, the fascination of women's hair-and their attachment to it-hit Pat like a ponytail whipping across the face.
She wrote the first episode of Hair Theater, and in it, she and three other women told their life stories through the evolution of their hairdos. Women roared. Nearly 10 years later, Hair Theater-now a motivational one-woman show with several episodes, all tied to hair in some way-is still wowing sold-out audiences. Pat has performed everything from a Catholic school girl episode, which includes adventures in Our Lady of Perpetually Glorious Hairdos High, to one called "Dude, Where's My Hair?," which incorporates real-life children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Select shows are underwritten by corporate sponsors so that ticket proceeds can benefit Pat's Hair Theater Wig Fund, which helps women and girls going through chemotherapy afford wigs and hats. Sometimes, Pat's shows are open to the public; other times, groups from Columbus to California call her in for special events.
But while she may be laugh-out-loud hilarious on stage with a giant bouffant wig and a ukulele, she might be even funnier on her back porch, sipping V8 and ranting about mothers who spend 10 minutes in the grocery line explaining to their 1-year-olds what trans fat is instead of just saying, "No, you can't have a candy bar." "I'm like, 'Shut the (bleep) up!' " Pat says, rolling her eyes.
"I don't know how she does it," says her friend Marian Hutson, the principal of Bishop Watterson High School. "She comes up with the statements that are so true to life, but with such a funny twist to it."
Patti actually knows exactly how she does it-with the truth. The late writer Erma Bombeck (whose every-otheryear workshops feature Pat as a speaker) once said that she doesn't write what's funny, she writes the truth, because the truth is funny. Pat does the same.
"The show-it is me out there, and I think people resonate with that," Pat says.
"It's maybe what they wanted to say but they couldn't. It's the honesty that makes it work."
Pat's best-kept secret is not altogether surprising if one knows much about creative types like her: She struggles with depression. It comes in waves, she says. She does not take medication to treat it, instead relying on a healthy diet and loads of exercise. She believes that cultivating happiness for others helps her, too. So she puts an enormously complex amount of work into her shows, writing and singing and revamping each performance for months in front of a full-length mirror in her upstairs home office. Performing Hair Theater, she says, is like exposing her soul. "It's about hair, but it's about hope," she says. "And if you can hang onto hope, you can hang onto anything."
She should know, as this year has pelted her with an onslaught of sadness. Her brother-in-law died, as did a handful of other relatives. Two of the children who performed as part of "Dude, Where's My Hair?" also passed. And her mother's health is declining, meaning Pat must visit more, clean more, do more.
Nonetheless, Pat worries about everyone else: actress Sandra Bullock ("I wouldn't be able to come out of my house"), the Obamas ("I don't know how they sleep at night with all they have to deal with"), and reality star Kate Gosselin (there's too much here to explain), to name but a few. "I like to think of it," Pat jokes, "as a public service."
There are a many things that make Pat the girlfriend everyone wants to have. One, as her nieces will tell anyone, is that she's just plain fun. On family vacations, she assures that the Fish Fairy visits daily, bringing trinkets like sparkly purses and piggy banks. "And she never tells where the Fish Fairy lives or anything about the Fish Fairy," says her 8-year-old niece, Erin.
Another, as her husband will tell anyone, is the element of surprise. She will dance on tables (if she's getting too old for this, she has not gotten that memo) and host Wiener World (during which she hangs up pictures of wiener dogs, cooks wieners and assigns seats so family members have to mix things up). "It's something new and fresh all the time," Steve says. "She always has something going on."
But perhaps most importantly of all, she listens, and she remembers, and she cares. She is the type of woman who, at age 21, fostered a baby girl for three months and misses her still. The type who flies a New Orleans flag in her yard not because she has any connection to the city, but because those people continue hurting, and she has not forgotten. The type who reads about people in the newspaper having a rough go at life and writes them letters.
Because Pat Wynn Brown believes that you can change the world with 44 cents. And so one act of Patti at a time, she does.