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Student forges special bond with commencement speaker James Patterson, her childhood reading hero

April 29, 2020 By Doug Erickson
A group of people at a Badger football game.

The Pattersons invited Marie Aguirre to hang out with them at a tailgate party at Camp Randall Stadium last fall prior to the Michigan State game. James and Susan Patterson are directly behind Aguirre. Submitted photo

Marie Aguirre loved reading so much as a kid that her parents had to seize her books at night so she’d sleep.

One obsession was “Maximum Ride,” a series of fantasy novels for young adults by James Patterson. Hooked on Patterson’s writing, Aguirre transitioned to his popular adult thrillers in high school.

Now, through a series of events the UW–Madison senior can hardly believe happened, Aguirre has become friends with Patterson and his wife Susan. She’s also been a recipient of their generosity — the couple supported her college studies with a scholarship.

“They have absolutely changed my life,” says Aguirre, of Minocqua, Wisconsin.

Aguirre has been attending UW–Madison on a four-year, full-tuition scholarship funded by the Pattersons, who have deep ties to the university. Susan (Solie) Patterson earned two degrees from UW–Madison, a bachelor of science and a master of fine arts. The couple, who reside in Palm Beach, Florida, have donated to numerous university initiatives for years.

In February, UW–Madison announced James Patterson as this year’s spring commencement speaker. Due to COVID-19, the in-person ceremony has been postponed, but Patterson will still address graduates by video on May 9.

Four people stand together, posing for the camera.

Marie Aguirre, third from left, first met author James Patterson at the 2018 Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. Also pictured are Susan Patterson and the couple’s son, Jack Patterson. Submitted photo

Aguirre’s relationship with the couple was set in motion during her senior year of high school. Accepted to UW–Madison, she was awarded a Chancellor’s Scholarship through the Mercile J. Lee Scholars Program. The four-year, merit-based undergraduate scholarship program was established to attract and develop the potential of academically talented and outstanding individuals from historically underrepresented groups. Aguirre is Ecuadorian and identifies as Latina. Scholars receive a full-tuition scholarship and a $400 book stipend each semester.

Not long after arriving on campus, Aguirre was selected to receive the James B. and Susan S. Patterson Scholarship, one of several named scholarships within the broader Chancellor’s Scholarship Program. Through named scholarships, donors and recipients can get to know each other on more personal terms.

Although the Pattersons provide financial support to more than 150 UW–Madison students each year, the named scholarship, with its commitment to fund four full years of tuition, is unique within their giving portfolio. Aguirre is the first recipient of the Patterson Scholarship.

As a freshman, Aguirre began updating the Pattersons periodically on her academic progress and soon met Susan Patterson at a scholarship-related event. They had much in common. Both love sports and are huge Badger fans, and both swam competitively in high school. Susan Patterson was a swim team captain, Big 10 record-holder and two-time All-American swimmer at UW–Madison.

Whenever Susan Patterson visits Madison, the two try to connect. They’ve attended two men’s basketball games together and enjoyed Babcock Ice Cream at Memorial Union. In 2018, Aguirre met James Patterson for the first time at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Last fall, the Pattersons invited Aguirre to join them and their extended family for a tailgating party prior to a home football game at Camp Randall.

“Getting to know them and learn from them has been the most remarkable experience, something I never could have anticipated when I applied here,” Aguirre says. “I was a very shy freshman, and they were so welcoming to me — a stranger — from the start.”

Aguirre describes the couple as down-to-earth and humble.

“Sue is very busy when she’s in town, but she always makes time for me. James is really passionate about educational equality and making sure young people learn to read and have fun reading. And he’s very funny. He’s always cracking jokes and telling stories.”

Susan Patterson, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband, says she’s been thinking a lot about Aguirre lately and how much she will miss her next year.

“Marie is a delight and I’ve appreciated watching her blossom as a student and as a person,” Susan Patterson says. “She’s been a wonderful Chancellor’s Scholar student who has wisely made the best of her time at Wisconsin. I know she will do well wherever she lands. She’s poised, she’s super smart, she’s kind. She has a great spirit about her. She’s special, like family.”

Aguirre will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and a certificate in business. She has been hired by the Kohl’s department store chain as a financial analyst in Milwaukee.

When Aguirre heard that Patterson, the world’s best-selling author of the last 20 years, would be commencement speaker, she says she ran around the house yelling, “I know him! I know him!” She couldn’t believe that the speaker chosen to inspire graduates would be the same person who has had a major impact on her life since age 12.

“I firmly believe my love of reading is why I succeeded in college, and he has always been a big part of that,” she says.

Like all students, Aguirre is completing her studies this semester entirely online due to COVID-19. She is back home in Minocqua, though continuing to work 10 hours a week — remotely — as a peer career advisor with SuccessWorks, the personal and professional development center for students in the College of Letters & Science.

She misses studying on the Terrace and gathering with friends every Thursday night — they’re playing games together on Zoom instead. She cried when Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced that commencement would not be held as scheduled in May.

“It’s been hard,” Aguirre says. “But at the same time, I’m really supportive of all the decisions the university has made. This is a public health emergency, and we want to keep everyone safe.”

She was looking forward to seeing the Pattersons at commencement but knows there will be other opportunities. In the meantime, she’s been doing a lot of reading during this time of social distancing. A book by Patterson is never far from her side.