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There is a sesne today that I shouldn’t be here. I should be in the suburbs of Denver, helping to lay to rest a man who in many ways made me whatever success I have been in this world, a man I call friend.
Just a week ago, Tom Patterson lay quietly in an ICU in California, tubes and machines breathing for him. Breathing long had been Tom’s downfall, brought on by a 15-year battle with a lung-eating disease called scleroderma.
He told me once that the disease gradually hardens the lining of the lungs, making it impossible to absorb oxygen and pass it along through the bloodstream. He said he thought that process took root when he was in college and worked summers breathing the dusty air deep inside his family’s coal mines in Western Kentucky. He said there was no stopping this disease, that only a lung transplant could extend his life.
When he said all of that, Tom Patterson was well short of 50 years old. He was a newlywed. He had a lucrative business and a wonderful new home. Life was good, but life was leaving him slowly but surely. And now that life is gone. The transplant never happened.
Your connection to Tom Patterson is thin and earthly. He was educated at Western Kentucky University, became a sports writer who covered the Ohio Valley Conference for The Courier-Journal, back during the paper’s glory days. He used to like to fish at the old Simpsonville Lake.
My connection to Tom Patterson is fat and spiritual. He was Yoda to my Obi-Wan, a teacher, mentor, coach, collaborator, coconspirator and, ultimately, my dear friend.
That’s why it feels so wrong to be here today, nearly a thousand miles from where his small and frail body will be stored for life, where his memory and greatest attributes and a shared love for him will be celebrated.
Yet, that I am here, doing what I do, is a testimony in large part to Tom Patterson. Every day I try to practice what he preached, what he encouraged me to do, what he celebrated with me and inspired within me and brought with great passion to me.
Professionally, he simply made me.
That molding began on a summer day in 1977 when he hired me to be another sports writer on the 9-person staff he had put together for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
I had known of Patterson from reading The Courier-Journal, and I was a lowly sports writer at the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American when I heard he unthinkably had moved from my homeland to the big paper up the road, which happened to be owned by the same family as the American. I was awestruck by that choice. The C-L was the biggest newspaper in Mississippi, but no one then ever would have confused size with competence.
We met at a sports writers’ convention, and later he began the process of trying to hire me, an idea originally vetoed by the ownership family who liked me just where I was.
Perhaps because of that battle on my behalf, when I did finally make the move to a less-glamorous role at his increasingly improving paper, there was sowed a loyalty and camaraderie between us that never could be sullied, no matter how may curveballs from life and career buckled either of our knees.
And I immediately began to learn and build and grow and gain confidence under the force of nature that was Tom Patterson.
Here’s what another friend and former coworker, Rick Cleveland, wrote last week:
“Patterson, a short, elfish, bespectacled, balding and bearded man with mischievous eyes, was the center of our storm. He had ideas the way Nike has shoes. He was a whirling dervish of energy, and he demanded all around him work as hard as he.”
And work we did, for a little more than three years, but during that time Tom and I also lived in the same apartment complex, spent at least 60 hours a week in the office together, played golf, dined, roomed together at two World Series and tried to make each other better in everything we did. He entrusted me with responsibilities that allowed me to grow.
Thus, in 1980, when he interviewed for a job to run the sports department for what was then The Sentinel-Star in Orlando, Fla., and decided it wasn’t a good fit for him, he told the guy doing the hiring that it might be just right for me. I was 27 years old and full of vinegar, and so I went from being one of Tom’s children to being responsible for two dozen other people at a metro daily. It was humbling.
In many ways, I very much was in over my head. If not for Tom and what he had taught me and how he counseled me along the way, I probably would have sunk to the bottom in an ignominious ending. But I learned to swim without the floaties he had provided.
Not long after I left Jackson, Tom went west. He worked at the Denver Post – where during his time as metro editor the paper won a Pulitzer for public service – the Chicago Tribune, the National Sports Daily, a newspaper staffed by hall-of-famers, and others. He started a company in Colorado that built the tourism industry there and restarted it again after moving to California, where his lifestyle changed but his life undoubtedly was lengthened by a climate that was kinder to his lungs.
The last time I saw Tom was two years ago when we traveled to Northern Virginia to celebrate the passing of another dear friend from our days in Jackson, Don Collins.
Don and Tom were as close as brothers, dating to their days at WKU. They allowed me to be a parasite to their friendship, to learn from their mutual love and respect, to be the punch line to their incessant kidding, to be blessed by them in every little and large way you could imagine and recite.
Tom was one of the speakers at Don’s funeral, and I carried the urn that bore his ashes. It was solemn and sad, and before I departed to drive home, we embraced and promised to see one another before too long, perhaps closing a permanent circle in our lives.
Because, you see, it was Tom’s voice that awakened me on a stormy night last spring to tell me that Don had died.
That was June 13, 2010, two years to the day before Tom Patterson’s scarred lungs inhaled his last breath.
Those two amigos are together again.
And I don’t feel right being here today.