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Cody’s Books Co-founder Leads an Activist’s Life

By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 09, 2003

When I told Pat Cody I wanted to write about her role in starting up social action projects, her first words were typical. “Only if you don’t imply that I did it alone. No one person can do anything alone!”  

First, a skeletal early bio: She was born Pat Herbert in 1923, in New London, Conn., earned her B.A. at Eastern Connecticut State University in 1943, then went to Columbia University, where she met Fred Cody. They married in 1946. After finishing her M.A. in economics in 1948, she and Fred lived in Mexico and in England where she helped put Fred through graduate school by writing economic reports for the business research division of The Economist. 

Pat and Fred settled in Berkeley in 1956, the year the first of their four children was born. It was also the year they founded Cody’s Books, which is one of six major, ongoing successful projects (not counting their children, all of whom, Pat says proudly, grew up to work in public interest jobs) in which Pat played a starting, then a sustaining role. 

“The ‘50s was the start of the paperback revolution,” Pat says. “Most people can’t remember or even imagine the days when bookstores carried only costly hardbound books, and drugstore racks sold pulpy mass paperbacks. People like Roy Kepler (one of the pacifist founders of KPFA, as well as of Kepler’s Books) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Fred were realizing the possibilities of bookstores specializing in the new ‘quality’ paperbacks.”  

Cody’s Books began (on a borrowed $5,000) in a tiny shop on Euclid. In 1960, they moved to an abandoned grocery store Pat found on Telegraph (now the rebuilt site of Moe’s Books.) In 1964, with the help of one of their employees (“We didn’t realize his father was a millionaire!”) they hired a building designer to create the gleaming glass-walled store on Telegraph and Haste. Pat and Fred got a 20-year lease on it. 

“Fred and I made a good partnership, Fred out on the floor, dealing with book reps and customers, me in the back office doing the accounts.” 

When pressed, Pat admits that during those politically tumultuous years, while she and Fred struggled to play a responsible mediating role in the conflicted community, her writing of economic reports kept the store afloat. 

Some have called Pat’s second great project the birth of the peace movement on the West Coast. In 1961, concerned mothers like Pat, Frances Herring, Madeline Duckles, June Brumer and others decided to stage a Women’s Strike for Peace, organizing visits to local government offices to protest nuclear testing and our early involvement in Vietnam. 

What was to be a one-day demonstration became Women For Peace (still going on Ellsworth Street). One of the early WFP projects was an ongoing Sunday afternoon vigil at city hall and on the university campus. They carried signs like BRING THE 20,000 ADVISORS BACK FROM VIETNAM. “People would look at our signs and ask, ‘Vietnam? Where’s that?’” 

When the 1964 Free Speech Sit-ins hit the media, floods of disaffected young people began pouring into Berkeley. 

“To some people they looked adventuresome, romantic, but the truth is they got sick, they got raped, they overdosed. They really needed help, and often they were too broke and too confused or scared to get it,” she explains. 

Pat says that a coalition of graduate students and activists started going out on the street, offering health services, collecting coins in cups to finance a Berkeley Free Clinic that was soon deluged with every kind of medical need and emergency. 

“Fred said to me, look, if this is going to survive, you’d better handle the money.” Pat sighs, “Every single Sunday night for five years, we had staff meetings,” with Pat as treasurer. The Berkeley Free Clinic continues, serving an ever more needy clientele. 

In the mid-1970s, the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective was formed to offer information, services, and advocacy for young women—focusing on abortion, venereal disease, contraception, but not menopause and other health questions of older women. 

In 1976 Pat helped gather an older women’s support group meeting at the Health Collective. “We met only a few times, talked over immediate issues, shared information.” Pat shrugs. “That one never really went anywhere.” In this case Pat was ahead of the times, planting seeds that, as baby boomers matured, later grew into health advocacy for mothers and older women. In addition, she was unknowingly training herself for her major health advocacy project. 

In 1971 Pat learned about the dangers of DES, a supposedly anti-miscarriage prescription drug she had taken during her first pregnancy. In 1974, her worst fears were confirmed when daughter Martha was examined and found to have abnormal, possibly pre-cancerous reproductive tissue. 

Pat called a dozen or so health advocates and professionals (all those good folks she had met during earlier projects) to a meeting at (where else?) Cody’s Books. 

Pat named their effort DES ACTION, and during the next decade it grew to become a national organization, absorbing more and more of Pat’s interest and time, especially after she and Fred sold Cody’s Books to Andy Ross in 1977. 

Then, in 1983, personal tragedy threatened to stop Pat dead in her tracks. Fred died. “I was devastated, paralyzed. I couldn’t stop crying and crying.” 

Pat looked for a support group and, incredibly, there were none. “I said, I can’t believe this. Berkeley has a support group for everything, but not for grief?” 

So, together with two therapists, Ahna Stern and Marcia Perlstein, she began one. They agreed on two firm criteria: “It had to be free, and it had to be egalitarian, no authority passing down the official word on how we were supposed to feel. It would meet in a neutral location—a schoolroom or church—and would be led by two facilitators, one a grieving person, the other a trained, (volunteer) group leader.” 

For the next five years, Pat helped start and run groups until many agencies and organizations began to offer them. “It was essential for me, because giving back to the community is part of healing.” 

Another part of healing was Pat’s continued work for DES ACTION, soon an international association, helping thousands of women who were injured by a useless and harmful drug prescribed by doctors for more than twenty years. For thirty years, DES ACTION has continued to grow in services and influence. 

Among many activities, DES ACTION offers education for possibly affected mothers and their children; makes referrals to doctors and lawyers; monitors research, pointing scientists in directions suggested by anecdotal evidence; publishes the DES Newsletter, still edited by Pat; lobbies for legislation, winning victories like a recent Congressional appropriation of $5 million for DES research and treatment. 

Another recent triumph: the Center for Disease Control put out a handsomely printed, free DES UPDATE, which recently won an award from the Public Relations Society of America. “We are thrilled to see the hard work of the CDC group recognized.” Ever the advocate reaching out, Pat insists that this article include the DES ACTION Web site 

Recently the subject of a San Francisco Chronicle series titled “Unsung Heroes,” Pat commented, “Unsung? Well, if you’re busy blowing your own horn, there’s no time to do anything.” 

But Pat, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, is facing defeat in her struggle to blend into the background. On Jan. 31, 2004, at the Berkeley Public Library Foundation Authors’ Dinner, Pat will be honored as the first recipient of what is to be an annual award “to a Berkeleyan with a distinguished career related to books, literacy, and literature—The Fred and Pat Cody Award.” 

For information about celebrating Pat at this fundraiser, call 981-6115.