My father, George Wesley Patterson, died on May 23th. He was 55; it was a heart attack and a complete shock.
This post contains no pearls of wisdom after reflecting on his life, nor deep introspection on my part. It’s not about life lessons or how you can be a better person. It’s just about my dad.
He was born in Washington D.C. while my Grandmother was in the area with family. My dad loved to tell people that he was born in the United States, but not in one of the states, and make them guess where. Surprisingly few guessed correctly.
He grew up in North Carolina, and briefly lived in Virginia as well. His first job was helping in the tobacco fields – which made him violently ill for the first few days – but he quickly moved into positions of responsibility.
Interesting fact #1: My father drove a school bus at 16 years old.
Apparently in the mid 1970s in North Carolina, they had no problem with 16 year olds driving a school bus, because my father did it for a whole school year. It was a very poor choice on their part, since he admits to driving a school bus just as you’d expect a 16 year old to do so. My favorite story demonstrated this. After getting accustomed to his route, he took notice of one particularly long stretch of road. A question formed in his mind every time he drove past: How long could the bus go straight down that road without him touching the steering wheel? He began experimenting, a little longer each day (don’t worry, he assured me this was on the way back after dropping off the children), until he felt confident to take his experiment to the next level. One day, he let go of the wheel, ran down the aisle, touched the back of the bus, and ran back just in time to save the bus from a ditch. He wasn’t proud of that story – well, no, actually he was. He definitely was.
His father worked in the textile industry around Danville, VA. He didn’t want my father to go into his own profession – for various reasons including turmoil over unionization and an industry moving overseas – so my father instead chose the military.
Interesting fact #2: My father loved flying, and wanted to go into the Air Force.
Unfortunately for him, at 6’2″ and with glasses, he wouldn’t have been able to be a pilot. He chose the Navy instead. They barely took him; he had to eat bananas and drink lots of water in order to make the minimum weight requirement. For his height, he hit the minimum weight requirement exactly at 143 lbs. He later tried pursuing his pilot’s license, and got a decent number of hours, but the expense and time commitment prevented him from finishing it. He did give me the gift of a flying lesson (as a surprise!) on my 19th birthday, and I think he enjoyed seeing me crammed into a small two-seater more than I enjoyed piloting it.
My father was only in the Navy for about two years, and met my mother while stationed in Florida.
Interesting fact #3: My father was kicked out of the Navy.
It was an honorable discharge, because he was one of the top students in his nuclear training facility and also didn’t do anything too disorderly. His crime was not wanting to be deployed so that he could marry my mother. The Navy refused to change his deployment, and he didn’t take that well. The Navy had a specialist evaluate him, declared he had “immature personality disorder,” and discharged him. He worked lots of jobs before finding a career in the nuclear power industry, and moving up the ranks over several decades. He also taught a business philosophy / psychology program (called Pacific Institute) to thousands of people around the country.
Interesting fact #4: My father was uneducated and self-conscious about his lack of education.
This might be surprising to people that worked with my father, not because he was an academic – he wasn’t – but he did became a very important and influential person in his industry, and nearly all his colleagues at least had college degrees. In fact, he even taught classrooms full of college professors the Pacific Institute material – something that he frequently found humor in. “The dumb ole’ country boy” (as his mother-in-law called him endearingly) was teaching professors and managers who operated nuclear power plants. Behind his self-effacing humor though, he wasn’t comfortable with not having a degree. He often said that if he had a degree, he’d be running a nuclear plant, but he literally couldn’t even apply to those positions, since they would then find out he didn’t have an education. My brother Steven and I, who were some of the first Patterson men to obtain college degrees, tried to express how generally useless we felt our own educations were, but he firmly rejected that argument. He was very proud of us; envious even.
He wasn’t in the nuclear industry for his entire post-Navy career though. In the mid 1980’s, when I was a baby, he left his job at the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant in North Carolina in order to purchase and operate a soda vending machine company called Triangle Fountain.
Interesting fact #5: My father loved being an entrepreneur and nearly left his family to pursue his business.
He poured himself into Triangle Fountain. He had plans to take on the major distributors in the region, and began to do so single-handedly. It was the single-handed nature of his endeavor that soon led my mother – who had three young children at the time – to deliver him an ultimatum. Either he leave his new business and start raising his family properly, or he keep the business and divorce her. My siblings and I are eternally grateful to my father for selling the company and choosing to be more involved in our lives, but it wasn’t a simple decision for him. He later told me that he was ashamed how long it took him to make the right decision. His desire to build his own business was incredibly strong; in fact it nearly killed him.
Interesting fact #6: My father drove into a telephone pole driving back from a confectioner’s convention.
Always looking for a way to own his own business again, my father took an interest in candy in the late 90s. He was a devout Christian and wanted to create a line of hard candy (chocolate was too difficult because of refrigeration) that contained biblical messages. In order to learn more about the business, he drove himself to visit a confectioner’s convention, and drove back home himself the same night. He fell asleep at the wheel, and drive into a telephone pole, nearly tearing the entire passenger side off of his beloved Suburban. He often told me how much that scared him – not because of the accident, but because he hit a couple mailboxes before the pole. “What if someone had been checking their mail?” He never got into the candy business. But he always did have big plans.
Interesting fact #7: My father, had he lived long enough, would have introduced teff grain to mainstream America.
Teff is a grain from Africa. If you’ve ever had Ethiopian food, you’ve eaten teff. It’s the most nutritious grain in the world, but also the smallest, which makes harvesting it difficult. Because of that difficulty, it never became popular in America with farmers, nor the general public. My father was going to change all that.
On my father’s mother’s side of the family is a farm which has been in the family since the 1850s. It was originally a tobacco farm, as nearly all farms in that area of Southern Virginia were. Before she passed away in 2013 from cancer, my mother had wanted to live on that farm with my father, and they began the process of purchasing it from his mother and her siblings. My mother died before it was purchased. Dad struggled for months about whether or not he should go through with buying the farm now; it was always their joint vision to live there. In the end, he did buy it, for two reasons. One, he felt like it would become the Patterson family hub, and he wanted a place for everyone to visit. Two, he wanted to get the farm back into production in order to make an income from the land enough to feel comfortable in retirement.
After much research, he settled on teff as the crop he would grow on the farm. This wasn’t just a fleeting idea either; he grew teff on a test plot in the fall of 2014, and it grew very well. He began working with university professors from several Virginia schools to do test programs using his land. The last photograph I took of my father was him in one of his fields along with one of the university professors. They had spent the past hour talking about teff, and how excited they both were to introduce this grain to everyday Americans.
These facts are only a handful that I chose to highlight, but there are many more. Some are funny, like the fact that my father hated dimes and refused to carry them, feeling that all change should increase in size as it increases in value. Some aren’t funny, like the fact that my father thought he had a brain aneurysm but hid this from us all for more than a year. Many revolve around his future plans, which were never in short supply; he planned on buying a used bus and converting it into travelling ministry, complete with extendable screen to make a mobile drive in theater to spread the word more effectively.
My father was an interesting man, and I’ll miss him terribly.