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Patrick Flaherty’s commitment to public health lives on

May 22, 2018
By Noah Petersen '19

Patrick Flaherty ’92

Patrick Flaherty ’92 used to host happy hours for his friends when he came back from working overseas. They would stop by, catch up and say hello to his English bulldog, Miss Porkchop. Patrick would often tell his friends stories about Bangkok, Thailand, where he was the deputy director of HIV/STD research program for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). 

Soft-spoken and relaxed, Patrick didn’t look like someone who took risks. He didn’t seem like someone who would fly to Liberia at the height of the 2014 Ebola outbreak and help fight the disease.

But he was.

When Flaherty passed away in Bangkok last spring, no one saw it coming.

Patrick’s family remembers him for his great smile and the way he brought people together. Now they are creating a way for more people to remember him. The Flaherty family is endowing a scholarship named in Patrick’s honor, with a preference for William & Mary students studying public health.

Public health is a young program at the university, and though it’s still only a minor, more than 60 students are currently enrolled. Erin Flaherty ’93, Patrick’s sister, said that the scholarship was a way to honor her brother’s commitment to public health by donating to the place where it began.

By supporting students with financial need, she hopes to encourage a diversity of perspective in the program, a goal echoed in Patrick’s career.

“Public health can help get everyone on an equal playing field, and that’s what he tried to do at the CDC,” Flaherty said.

Along with the scholarship, the Flaherty family is creating a fund for the Office of Community Engagement to help support students traveling on Branch Out Alternative Break service trips.

These gifts reflect the importance Patrick placed on his time at the university. His four years in Williamsburg were the first time he “found his stride” in a community, his sister said. An international relations and economics major, he enjoyed the competitive environment and the relationships he made.

“It was academically challenging, but he also had a great group of friends that were there. I think it was just a great experience for him,” Flaherty said.

She went to the university a year after her brother, and though they passed each other on campus and shared the car sometimes, they had different interests, and like many brothers and sisters, they “did their own thing.”  

Their parents would visit sometimes and having them both on the same campus made it easier. They all knew Patrick was special, and when he first told them he would be traveling to Liberia during the Ebola outbreak, they weren’t surprised. It was just Patrick being Patrick.

“He just kind of stood up [to go to Liberia], and [we thought], ‘well of course you're going.’ He would always step up,” she said.

After Patrick’s death, his friends and colleagues filled his online obituary page with comments expressing grief for his passing and thanks for his life. He was a great negotiator, would listen and respect both sides of an argument. He didn’t get angry often; small things never bothered him.

“He was just a cheerleader for people. He would say ‘do your thing, and don’t worry about what other people think or say,’ and I think he got to that point because that’s what he needed to live his life to the fullest and be bold as who he was,” she said.

The more stories Flaherty heard from her brother’s colleagues, the better she understood just how unique Patrick was.

“You just know your brother. You don’t realize the bigger role he played in a professional way. The stories just kind of shock you and make you go, ‘yeah, he was really great,’” she said.  

Patrick’s relatives and friends will remember him and the impact he had. His colleagues won’t forget him either. He’ll live on in their lives and the stories they tell about him.

But Patrick’s legacy will also survive in every student the scholarship supports at William & Mary. His impact will continue in their service and their studies, into their careers and beyond. It’s a story that will be told again and again, a legacy that lasts longer than a life.

“I just thought, okay, let’s do something bold. Let’s not wait,” Flaherty said.

Like brother, like sister.