Deval Patrick’s grandmother used to tell him to hope for the best and to work for it. That advice helped propel him from poverty in the South Side of Chicago, to the Massachusetts State House.

Patrick, 53, was elected the state’s first African-American governor in November 2006. Since then, his administration has addressed issues ranging from health care costs for small business owners to gay marriage and green energy.

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As a stellar student, Patrick moved to Boston when he was 14 for a scholarship to Milton Academy, a prestigious boarding school. After graduating, Patrick entered Harvard, becoming the first in his family to attend college. He received his degree with honors in 1978.

He spent the next year working in Sudan’s Darfur region on a United Nations youth training project. He later returned to Cambridge, Mass., to attend Harvard Law School.

Post-graduation, Patrick began a legal career. He clerked for a federal appellate judge, and then joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. By age 34, he’d been named partner at Boston law firm Hill & Barlow.

In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton appointed Patrick Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, the highest civil rights position in the U.S. At the Justice Department, his notable work included an investigation of church burnings in the South, the largest federal criminal investigation before September 11th.

In 1997, Patrick returned to private practice in Boston; that same year he was appointed by a federal district court to chair Texaco’s Equality and Fairness Task Force. Texaco subsequently hired him as vice president and general counsel; his Fortune-500 career trajectory continued when he joined Coca-Cola as VP and general counsel.

Along the way, Patrick has received numerous honors, including the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crown Fellowship, and NBC’s Meet the Press described him as “one of the country’s key political thinkers.”

What’s next for Patrick? A re-election bid in 2010, and dealing with potentially thorny issues like slots gambling at racetracks.

Given his personal story, and achievements in the public, private and non-profit sectors, there’s no doubt he’s up for the challenge.