When she was growing up in England, her father raced greyhounds and gambled away everything he earned. Eventually, he left and her mom took whatever menial job she could find to support two sons and three daughters.
"There was never enough to eat. We lived in an awful, awful mouse-infested house with an outside toilet," she says. When she took a paper route, all the money went to support the family. At age 15, other girls made fun of her clothes. When she went to a friend's home, she saw things her own lacked, like a table at which to study and indoor plumbing.
But she loved learning. She'd do her homework at the library, where a friendly librarian set new books aside for her to read. And she somehow knew, without being told, that education could change her future.
At night, lying in the bed where she slept heel-to-head with her two sisters, Pamela Atkinson would plan.
"I'll marry a rich man and never have anything to do with poor people," she told herself.
Fast-forward five decades and 4,500 miles, and it is actually her love of those who are homeless or simply poor for which Atkinson is best known.
Most weeks, you may find her offering gloves and socks, sage advice and hugs to those who shelter along the Jordan River or beneath the abutments of underpasses.
She has loved her homeless friends enough to scold them occasionally and to bargain for their better choices. She will pay to kennel a dog to get his owner into medical care. She speaks at the funerals of prominent friends — but she also eulogizes and mourns homeless friend C.J. and Papa Smurf and poor Virgil Robertson, who froze to death one Thanksgiving Day.
A reporter remembers having a cup of tea with Atkinson and one of her street friends in a house made of cardboard, called a hooch, where Atkinson and her host made small talk as a train rumbled yards away, shaking the cups and the makeshift furniture.
She usually has dog food in the back of her vehicle, a nod to her fondness for pets and her understanding that a homeless person may count a dog as his only true friend. Pets are a repository for love, and they boomerang it back to people who may find it nowhere else, she says.
H. David Burton, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, met Atkinson years ago, when she was organizing a Christmas dinner for the homeless. She needed food and lots of it for Salt Lake City's sizeable homeless population. It would be the first of many humanitarian projects the well-placed Mormon and the elder from the First Presbyterian Church would share.
She is thoughtful as she recounts her first trip to the Salvation Army dining room near Pioneer Park to serve the daily dinner provided for homeless men and women. She was with a church group, and the major running the dining room told her friends to stand behind tables and serve. He sent Atkinson to the front door. "Greet each homeless person, and shake his hand," he told her.
"I learned that when you shake that hand, it may be the first time that day, that month, even that year that they were touched."
She also learned "how easy it is to give, to make a difference. And when I make a difference in someone's life, it makes a difference in mine."
"I love her," says Celeste Eggert, director of development and community relations at the Road Home homeless shelter, who largely credits Atkinson for the overflow shelter that keeps hundreds safe from winter's wrath. "She found us the Midvale location and is instrumental in getting us funding each year. She literally saves lives."
She's also the "point person" you hit up when you're a shelter director surrounded by people who need socks or other items, Eggert says.
"She has a sixth sense about her," says Burton, "in terms of when people are hurting, regardless of what that hurt is — temporal, emotional, psychological. Every time you see her, collaborate with her, you come away saying, 'I think that person genuinely cares about me.' That's why the poor are so comfortable with her. They've been hurt by so many, so often, there's a little initial mistrust of anybody who is forthcoming to assist. But they dearly love her."
After Pamela finished high school, the only one of her siblings to do so, she applied to a nursing school in London. She'd been inspired watching how nurses helped people when she had her appendix out.
With 500-plus applicants, she figured she'd never get in. She landed one of 40 coveted spots.
She took her new skills to Australia, working with aborigines in the Torres Strait islands between New Guinea and Queensland for two years. Though she was happy there, she thought she should probably be doing more. Her next stop was a Philadelphia hospital, then she moved with a pal to San Francisco, where she did all kinds of nursing at the medical center, from general care to emergency and intensive care and assisting in the operating room.
She also heeded the advice of good friends who'd been encouraging her to go back to school. She got a bachelor's in nursing, with a minor in criminology. She followed that with a master's degree from the University of Washington, where she studied sociology, business and education and taught nursing and management leadership.
Married now, she and her husband would have three children, Roger, Sally and Heather. They eventually divorced, and that seemed like a good time for another change: She had left direct care for hospital administration, which she liked very much. She decided to accept a job to help run LDS Hospital. After two years, a San Diego hospital lured her away briefly, but Intermountain Healthcare came knocking again and wooed her back. Over time, she worked her way up to vice president in the central office, over mission services — programs that serve the needy.
Her two passions had found each other.
Here's the part most people don't realize, says Scott Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Zions Bank. While Atkinson's a passionate advocate for the poor and for children, "her contribution goes far beyond that. She's a very astute counselor and business person who understands the political environment." It's a combination that has made her a trusted adviser and policy guide for governors and legislators, educators and others. She's served on both the state Board of Regents and the School Board. She was the mediator chosen by both the Division of Child and Family Services and the National Center for Youth Law, which was suing the state over how foster children were cared for, during a decade-long dispute. The two sides agreed on very little, but both welcomed her as panel tie-breaker.
She's now the chairwoman of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography and recently accepted a place on the Deseret News' newly formed Editorial Advisory Board.
Community leaders say they want her input because she's as astute as she is kind.
"Her ability to take data and analyze and synthesize it ... is legendary," Anderson said. "She has a social conscience and a real understanding of what's happening in Utah."
He describes her with a line from Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If": "If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings nor lose the common touch." She is, he notes, comfortable with kings and paupers — and welcomed by both.
Or perhaps, he adds, the better-still description is that of Michelangelo, who said something along the lines of "it's well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand."
That's Atkinson, he says, "most happy contributing to society."
In retirement, she is busier than ever. Burton notes that she supports the arts and is often among those being honored for one thing or another. A low-income health clinic bears her name. So does the state's homeless trust fund.
She lives, she agrees, in "many worlds" and says she needs all of them: work with the homeless, with the low-income, with refugees, with business, with state government.
"I believe in teamwork, and I must be part of a dozen teams. I love how much I learn from other people. I try to keep my mind open all the time, and I love to be able to say, 'I never thought of it that way.' "
She agreed to work on the anti-porn issue because "I've known so many people whose lives were being ruined by what I call a scourge." Utah, she says, has an abnormally high rate of porn use.
She seldom says no to a good cause that impacts children. And she's on several boards, including that of the BMW Bank of North America. On the surface, it seems a little odd. She lives in an unpretentious house but drives a silver BMW, part of the pay for being a board member. She also gets a check, she explains, for every meeting she attends. She never misses one.
Money she makes on boards is her God-wants-me-to-help-others fund. She uses it to buy medicine for the homeless mom or a bus ticket home for a man who hasn't seen his family in more than a decade. It's money to pay the rent for a family that needs a break. She takes care to see that she gives away every penny.3 comments on this story
Her final world revolves around family. She has 10 grandchildren, all boys. And six of them live just around the corner. So she plays happily in the world of sleepovers with grandma and board games and hugs and movies and fun. And there — as in all her worlds — she says she leans to "Why not?" She is prone, she notes, to shooting down "We can't do that" with "Why can't we?"
"Sometimes, barriers in life are meant to be tackled and taken down."