My Uncle Bill’s life was celebrated, and he was mourned and shown to his final resting place last month on the same Thursday and Friday in June that over a thousand remembered the gentle giant, Father Barry McLean. Both the men died on the same day. Two excellent examples of the faith, gone, just like that.
My Uncle Bill had a huge influence in my life. It was 1973 when I visited him and my Aunt Loretta, another marvelous example of character in our family, in their suburban Columbus, Ohio, home. In the corner of their backyard were a set of stairs that led to a pathway across a creek. Over the creek was a snow-covered meadow and I remember distinctly walking across it even after almost 40 years. My memories, I suppose, remain so great of that walk because at the end of it was a church, St. Pius X, my aunt and uncle’s home parish.
I still remember my first Mass and the serenity and peace I felt. The feeling of calm I was left with. The newness of the worship experience.
Having been born a Southern Baptist, I was used to a somewhat different way of hearing the Word, and though I still count my childhood preacher, Brother Henry Kinkade, and Billy Graham as two major spiritual influences in my life, I will never forget the experience of that first Mass.
It would be 10 years before I was again treated to the Catholic way, when I met my wife Karen and went through RCIA.
My family never really opposed my move to Catholicism -- after all, Uncle Bill and Aunt Loretta were strongholds of the faith. When Karen and I told my parents I would be converting, though my mother had some hesitation, my father, I distinctly remember, simply said, “As long as you believe in Jesus, I don’t care how you do it.”
My Uncle Bill used to write letters, back when letter writing was how extended families communicated. Long distance charges were too much for most families, especially when they piled up every month. So my Uncle Bill would write letters and my father would sit in the living room and read them to my mom and me back in the day. And I loved those letters.
They were funny and packed with the latest from the Ohio Pattersons. (We were the Texas Pattersons).
Listening to those readings of my uncle’s letters are I am sure what gave me my initial interest in writing and the appreciation I have for the power of the written world.
It can be easily argued that Uncle Bill, then, planted the seeds in me for both my faith and my profession, although my wife Karen has been the guiding light for both these past 30 years or so.
My uncle was a huge influence in my life and was one of my heroes.
At his funeral Mass at St. Pius X last month, he taught me another lesson; a lesson that my father had long since instilled in me, but perhaps I had not remembered quite the way I should have these years.
My grandmother lost two husbands. The first, Claude Patterson, my grandfather, died of a hereditary cancer the family still deals with today. Grandma’s second husband died in what my family still only refers to as “a horrible accident in a train yard.”
When my grandmother’s second husband died, she was on her own with four children — my father, my two uncles and my aunt. My dad was already away in the Navy, and would send his military paychecks back home to help my grandmother with the essentials. As much as it helped, it wasn’t enough to handle everything, and so my Uncle Bill, still in high school, moved out and got his own apartment so there would be enough money for his mother to raise his younger brother and sister.
Perhaps an even bigger lesson in humility I was reminded of at my uncle’s funeral was his work as an engineer at North American Aviation, a company that worked with NASA. Uncle Bill held the patent on the design of an antenna that improved communications between the Apollo spacecraft and mission control. I’m sure I was told the story years ago, but it was not something we went around bragging about.
Although Uncle Bill invented the improved communications aboard the spacecraft, he was an employee of North American Aviation, and as such, a cog in the machine, if you will. He never received — or, more importantly, sought out —recognition for his achievement and technological advancement. And he never received what he deserved. Sadly, a superior took credit for his accomplishment.
Throughout much of his life, Uncle Bill constantly fought a degenerative bone disease that made it nearly impossible for him to move even from room to room without a walking aid of some sort. Yet he was diligent in whatever craft he took up and was known in our family as a man who never met a clock he couldn’t fix. He worked with great intricacy on the tiniest of pieces.
Two days before he died he fell and the frailty of what remained of his physical body could no longer take any more upheaval. The fall was thought to have directly contributed to his death on June 17.
Two of my larger-than life heroes — my father and my uncle — are now gone.
Or are they?
Both left anyone they touched with a lifetime of lessons. Both taught that humility was a gift, bestowed by God’s grace. If that humility is practiced it will lead to a life from which many can learn much.
My uncle was a writer, a humorist, and an evangelizer of the faith. He was a good husband married 60 years to Aunt Loretta and a loving father of six children. He was a veteran of the United States Navy and he was a humble man who did what was asked of him and would have never thought once about shouting about his accomplishments.
Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
In many ways, I am who I am today because of these two men who have served as great teachers.
Men of humility don’t strive to leave a mark on others, it just happens. What higher praise can be bestowed on one’s life?