"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.
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