In 1987, Maj. Gen. James “Jim” Patterson retired from the U.S. Army as a highly decorated veteran. But after a 28-year Army career, he remained a military man. He was meticulous about keeping his tools in their proper places. His family teased him because he kept his short military haircut. And even more than a decade after his retirement, he was committed to public service, serving from 1993 to 2003 on the Longboat Key Town Commission, including terms as mayor and vice mayor.
“He was not in uniform, but he was still serving,” said his daughter, Linda Patterson Italiano. “He wanted to continue serving his country and his community.”
Patterson, of Sarasota and formerly of Longboat Key, died Oct. 21. He was 78. His service in the Army earned him more than 30 awards for valor and meritorious service including the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military honor.
Born March 15, 1931, in Canton, Ohio, Patterson wasn’t born into a military family. But, from a young age, he was fascinated with airplanes and later decided that he wanted to serve his country.
Patterson graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and earned a master’s of business administration from Auburn University, in Montgomery, Ala. He joined the U.S. Army in 1952 and attended Officer’s Candidate School.
Patterson served in Korea in 1960 and began his first tour of duty in Vietnam in July 1966. He seldom spoke about Vietnam, even to his family. But in a May 25, 2000, article in The Longboat Observer,
Patterson recounted his experiences, saying: “Everyone involved in the armed forces has, in some way, had their lives irrevocably harmed.”
Three months into his first Vietnam tour, on Oct. 22, 1966, his helicopter crashed. Amid fire from the North Vietnamese, Patterson and 15 other troops fled and hid in the rice paddies until they were evacuated at dawn. That night, his co-pilot was fatally shot while Patterson sat beside him.
“God didn’t want me to die that night,” Patterson told The Longboat Observer.
Newspapers reported on Patterson’s heroism, of how he risked his life that night to pull injured men to safety. The Army awarded him with the Distinguished Service Cross. Every Oct. 22 for decades after that, he and the other men who survived that night spoke on the phone, discussing how grateful they were to have survived together.
Patterson’s plane was shot down two more times before he finished his first tour and later returned for a second tour, after being promoted to lieutenant colonel and put in charge of four helicopter units. His second stay lasted only seven weeks, because he broke his ankle after stepping into a foxhole. He volunteered for a third tour, but was turned down because of the injury.
Italiano said that she and her sisters, Carol and Leslie, didn’t learn about their father’s Vietnam experience until they were adults.
“Probably because he had three young girls, he wanted to protect us from the difficulties of war,” she said.
Italiano said that when her father came home at night, he was able to let the military go and focus on his wife, Barbara, and his daughters. But he still insisted on the discipline that came with military life, teaching his daughters to say “yes ma’am” and “no sir,” and telling them to never break a commitment, even to piano lessons.
The next 14 years of Patterson’s career included a post at the Pentagon, a role as aviation adviser to the secretary of the Army and a position as deputy commander in charge of all aviation training at Fort Rucker.
In 1976, while living in the Washington, D.C., area, Jim and Barbara Patterson drove to Florida, looking for a place where they could bring their sailboat.
“When they came to Longboat Key and they saw the sun set over the bridge, they knew where they wanted to be,” Italiano said.
During Patterson’s military career, the couple lived in 23 different homes. The Country Club Shores home they purchased on the Key was the first true home they had together; they became full-time residents in 1988.
Patterson retired in 1980 and was hired as vice president of Perceptronics Inc., a military contractor, and later as president and chief operating officer of American Agronomics.
In 1993, drawn again to the opportunity to serve the public, Patterson ran for Longboat Key Town Commission and won.
Commissioner Hal Lenobel, who served with Patterson on the Town Commission, said that Patterson was humble about his military success and took his responsibility to serve the town seriously.
“He was always forthright, and he was always loaded with integrity,” Lenobel said.
Former Mayor and Commissioner Jeremy Whatmough, who served with Patterson during his final year on the commission, said that Patterson focused on the long-term when voting on issues.
“He always thought about Longboat Key, not necessarily today, not necessarily tomorrow, but three, five years from now,” he said.
In 1996, while serving as mayor, Patterson founded Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START) to fund and support red-tide research after an intense outbreak that year. Whatmough, whom Patterson recruited to help found START, said that the founding of the organization showed Patterson’s commitment to treating red tide as a long-term issue, one that needed control and mitigation. Patterson continued his service on the Town Commission until 2003, when he retired from public life and moved to Sarasota.
Patterson was a member of Bird Key Yacht Club and enjoyed sailing and playing tennis. Every Christmas, his entire family would gather to spend the holiday on Longboat Key. There, he would shuck oysters by the pool before dinner.
Italiano said that her father’s war experience caused him to appreciate the small things in life: the weather, animals and the outdoors.
“He appreciated life more than anyone I know,” she said.
Patterson is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughters, Carol Patterson, of Fort Worth, Texas, Linda Patterson Italiano, of Tampa, and Leslie Scott, of Rolling Hills, Calif.; brothers, John Patterson, of Genesco, Ill., and William Patterson, of Ocala; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service with military honors was held Sunday, Oct. 25. Burial will take place at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va. Memorial contributions can be made in Patterson’s name to Mote Marine Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, Fla., 34236 or The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, attn: Tribute Gifts, P.O. Box 780, New York, N.Y., 10008.
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