Dad’s lessons, though sometimes painful, spark advocacy for better fathers

jholleman@thestate.comJune 14, 2014 

Patrick Patterson, who grew up in the tough Saxon Homes community of Columbia, wouldn’t be the manager of the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse if his father, James, had been able to fight off the demons of addiction.

Patrick wouldn’t have been honored as one of the top fatherhood boosters in the country if his dad hadn’t left the family for a life on the streets when Patrick was 15.

“He is, in the weirdest way, my inspiration for what I do,” Patrick said.

James Patterson hasn’t been a perfect father, but his imperfections, along with his strengths, helped shape his son’s career, his passion.

James, 66, still is a tough guy, with a handshake so firm it hurts despite the stroke last year that left him in a wheelchair and struggling to communicate. Patrick said the only time he had seen his father cry before was after his own father died. But on Tuesday, a tear ran down James’ right cheek as he talked about his past. (James indicated he simply had watery eyes, but the emotions were obvious.)

“I got caught up in drugs and alcohol,” James said, the words sputtering out slowly but with purpose.

But he also made it clear he preached to his four children to avoid those same pitfalls. He pushed them to do well in school. He taught them right from wrong, even if he couldn’t always take the right path himself.

Before his father fell victim to his addictions, Patrick watched him work two jobs to support his family. Patrick learned about discipline, like the whipping he got when he decided he’d rather follow his dad back home rather than stay at school in first grade. James drilled in preparation, so much so that the kids had to get their Sunday church clothes ready on Wednesday.

“For many, many years, my father was around,” Patrick said. “We had what we needed.”

Then, they didn’t.

When his father first left the family, Patrick didn’t realize the depth of the void. His mother, Geneva, was a rock, keeping the family together as they moved from home to home. But Patrick, a standout athlete at C.A. Johnson High School, let his grades slip to the point where the college once recruiting him for his football skills backed off. Patrick knows now what was going through his head back then.

“I was angry,” said Patrick, 39. “Why was he gone? What did I do, what did we do, to make him leave? I had a hole in my heart.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas would come around. Those are happy times for most people, but they weren’t for me. I kept saying this isn’t everybody. This isn’t my whole family.”

Patrick was pulled out of his funk by a girl. Sherani Ashford saw more in Patrick than he saw in himself. When they started getting serious, she made it clear she wasn’t going to stick with him unless he went to college. She didn’t care if he played sports, she wanted him to get an education.

Despite high school grades that were barely above a D average, Patrick enrolled at North Greenville University, where he made an abrupt academic turnaround in one year, earned a 4.0 grade point average and landed an academic scholarship at Benedict College. That led to graduate school in social work at the University of South Carolina and an internship with a fatherhood program run through the Sisters of Charity Foundation. “My greatest fear was that other kids were going through what I had gone through,” Patrick recalled of his career path.

Patrick and Sherani married, and his life was good – but something still was missing.

Working on the fatherhood initiative prompted him to try to reconnect with his father. James still managed to provide sage advice during sober periods, but he also was a cautionary example when he slipped back into addiction that made a full father-son connection impossible. “I was trying my best to remain in contact because, no matter what else happens, he’s still my father,” Patrick said. “Some people don’t understand. They don’t see the good side of him.”

While still struggling with his relationship with his own father, Patrick put his heart into his work. He helped launch a statewide fatherhood initiative that today is part of the S.C. Center for Fathers and Family. In 2003, Gov. Mark Sanford’s office asked him to come to a Charleston event to speak with the governor about fatherhood issues. President George W. Bush was at the same event, and the president struck up a conversation with Patrick, asking if he would be willing to move out of state.

Before he knew it, Patrick was in Philadelphia, working to provide fatherhood training through a Bush administration initiative. In 2007, he moved to an outside contractor that managed government fatherhood and healthy marriage programs nationwide.

Meanwhile, his father was in a better place, and his parents had reconnected. He and Sherani had one child and another would be on the way soon. “I was as happy as I’d ever been as an adult male,” Patrick said.

In 2010, he took over management of the National Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, which works with the Obama administration to administer grants, aim resources to local groups and push efforts to strengthen families. (Go to fatherhood.gov to get a taste of the group’s role.) The need is overwhelming – nearly one-third of children in the U.S. don’t live with their father, according to a 2013 Census Bureau report. Patrick’s group, while it encourages two-parent households, also works to keep fathers who don’t live with their children involved in their children’s lives.

Patrick tells his own story at public appearances, as a classic example of how important fathers can be at each stage of a child’s life.

Patrick’s “story is one of perseverance, his restored relationship with his father and his devotion to continue to help other fathers across the nation,” said Patricia Littlejohn, executive director of the S.C. Center for Fathers and Families.

This month, the National Partnership for Community Leadership honored Patrick at the International Fatherhood Conference in Memphis, Tenn., as Fatherhood Practitioner of the Year. As he accepted the award, his emotions overflowed. He was thinking about how his own dad – and a series of circumstances that he attributes to a heavenly Father – had set him on the course to this honor. And he was thinking about his daughters Peyton, 8, and Lorin, 6, and how desperately he wants to be a great father for them.

He contemplated all of those circumstances even more on the long drive from their home in Delaware to Columbia this week. He and Sherani bring the girls down each summer to spend two weeks with family members in Columbia. That trip also gave him a chance to check in on his dad, who’s recovering from the stroke in an acute-care facility.

“When I tell him I’m coming now, it’s the reverse of how it was when I was a kid,” Patrick said. “I used to look forward to seeing him. Now he looks forward to seeing me. He tells (the other residents at the acute care facility) about me. They all know I’m Patrick, and I live in Delaware.”

James’ face lit up Tuesday when Patrick entered the dining area where James sat with several residents. Patrick bent down to hug his father. It was one of those strong embraces where it’s obvious both sides really meant it.

Patrick asked the standard “how’re you doing” questions and waited patiently as his father answered. When the subject of Father’s Day and a newspaper story about their relationship came up, James made it clear to the nearby reporter: “I taught him how to raise children.”

Patrick agreed, even if some of the lessons were painful.

“It’s come full circle now,” Patrick said. “I’m a dad, and everything that my dad gave me and more I want to give to my daughters. I’m a better father because of him.”

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