When this columnist met Patricia Heaton, she was Patty and kind of a pain in the neck. A lot has changed since then.

Everyone who’s met a big star loves to tell the story how it happened. I’m no different. Every night when reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond” pop up on TV, I tell anyone who’ll listen that I’ve known Patricia Heaton for more than 35 years.

Truth is, I met Heaton a little over 35 years ago when she was 9. Her father, Chuck Heaton, who used to write the Plain Dealing column on the sports pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was a friend of my father’s.

When I had to go to the Cleveland Clinic for knee surgery, Heaton invited my parents and me to his family’s home for lunch. He and his wife, Patricia Helen, were raising five children, just like my parents, and it seemed like a happy, well-adjusted family.

I do recall thinking that little Patty, the Heaton’s second-youngest child, was a pain in the neck. She ran around the house, singing songs from some Broadway musical, and it was clear she thought she was the brightest, prettiest girl on the planet. It was enough to bug every self-respecting 12-year-old boy, which I was. Deep down, though, I was impressed by her beauty and vivacity.

A couple years later, I was saddened when her mother died of an aneurysm at 46. Chuck Heaton wrote such a moving column about his wife’s sudden death and how his family was coping without her that for years I carried the clipping in my wallet.

Not until “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a fixture on network TV did I make the connection that the actress who plays Ray Barone’s wife on the show is Patricia Heaton, my Patricia Heaton.

Not only did she turn out to be a good actress, she also seems like a nice person — the kind of person you’d be proud to say you knew.

She didn’t win an Emmy award the other night, but Heaton did take one in 2000 for best actress in a comedy. Instead of acting nonchalant, as if winning an Emmy was nothing out of the ordinary, Heaton leaped for joy on her way to the podium.

In her new book, “Motherhood & Hollywood: How to Get a Job Like Mine,” Heaton says that every person on the planet should have such an experience once in their life.

“Winning an Emmy is the most fabulous, wonderful, exciting, outrageously phenomenal feeling in the whole universe, even if it is completely meaningless. Only my children’s births were more exciting.”

A moment later, Heaton confesses, “I say that only because I look shallow if I don’t mention the boys. Truth is, I don’t even remember my kids being born.”

It’s probably true. Each of her four sons — Sam, 9; John, 7; Joe, 5; and Danny, 3 — arrived by Caesarean section. Heaton jokes that the births left her with a lopsided zipper belly, but she solved the problem by having a tummy tuck. She also had breast-reduction surgery.

“I’ve been pretty vain-slash-insecure all my life, so maybe plastic surgery was in my future,” she says. “Well, the future is here!”

Heaton says she’s frank about her plastic surgery because she doesn’t want women comparing themselves to the actresses they see on TV.

“When I go out to an important public appearance, I have a lot of help to look the way I do. Someone does my makeup, someone does my hair, a stylist helps me find the right clothes. It’s really not fair — the image we present to the world — because it’s so contrived.”

Asked why she opted for surgery, Heaton admits, “Vanity. My stomach looked like the map of the world, and I’m fine about saying I had surgery because there’s an awful lot of illusion in Hollywood. I think it’s better to be honest if you can.”

Heaton’s attitude is admirable. On motherhood, she says she gets a lot of help with her kids, but she’s up early with the boys every morning, feeding, washing, dressing, and driving them to school. She also makes sure she’s home by 5 p.m. to have dinner with the family and to help the boys with their homework.

Not only does she hold down a stressful, fulltime job, Heaton takes care of her husband and kids, and she’s even found time to write a pretty funny book.

“After the kids went to bed at night, I’d start in on the book and keep going until about midnight,” she said. “I worked on it for about six months.”

Heaton would write a chapter and then send it to her brother, Michael Heaton, who writes the weekly “Minister of Culture” column for the Plain Dealer.

“Michael would read it and send it back with any suggestions. We work closely together because we have the same voice and the same sense of humor,” she recently told People magazine.

Patricia Heaton clearly inherited some of her dad’s writing skill. A journalism major at Ohio State, she says she worried about telling her father that she wanted to switch her major to theater arts. “But when I finally told him, he was fine with it,” she said.

Heaton went to New York and worked for eight years as an aspiring Broadway actress. “That was during the good times,” she said. “I also modeled shoes, worked as a proof reader at Morgan Stanley and as a copy clerk at People magazine.”

Her big break came in 1996, when she was cast to play Raymond’s wife in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which would become one of the most popular sitcoms on TV. In Heaton’s book, she jokes that the cast on “Raymond” is a regular loser at events like the Emmy awards.

“We’re the uncool lunch table at Hollywood High,” she writes.

Ironically, Romano, Brad Garrett (who plays Raymond’s brother), and Doris Roberts, who plays their mom, all took Emmys this year. Heaton and Peter Boyle were also nominated, but came up short.

As much pleasure as Heaton derives from her work and success, you get the impression she feels motherhood is her most important role.

“I had a wonderful mom myself,” she says. “But one day when I was 12, I came home from school for lunch, and she was gone. It took me a long time to get over that. Actually, I don’t think you ever get over it completely, and it’s one reason why I got into therapy.”

Heaton writes honestly and sensibly in her book about that part of her life, as well.

She comes across so naturally that it’s little wonder why everyone loves Patricia Heaton. And some of us have for years.