Tennessee city says goodbye to a man who helped thousands of veterans

By MIKE CHRISTEN | The Daily Herald, Columbia, Tenn. | Published: March 1, 2019

COLUMBIA, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — Each pew at Riverside United Methodist Church was occupied from end to end as the life and legacy of Maury County Veterans Service Director James T. Patterson was honored Thursday.

Patterson died Saturday at Vanderbilt Medical Center after a car accident in Columbia. He was surrounded by family and loved ones inside the Nashville Hospital when he passed.

He was 72.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Patterson was celebrated during the service as a dedicated family man whose mission it was to stand up for those who could not do so themselves.

After retiring from Union Carbide in 2004, Patterson began a legacy of first-class service and dedication to Maury County's servicemen and women, directing Maury County Veterans Services.

In 2012, applause rang out from the Columbia Memorial Building when Patterson was honored for his service to the county's veterans. He was handed a certificate of appreciation from Gov. Bill Haslam inside the historic Columbia building.

That day, Patterson told The Daily Herald other than his wife, church and family, working as the county service officer has been the best part of his life.

"(The recognition) feels like something that is once in a lifetime, something very unexpected," Patterson said. "I'm not sure that I deserve it, but it's a great privilege to get it."

Six years after his recognition, Patterson was still working hard to help veterans.

In September 2018, he alongside Columbia builder Quinton Jones of Columbia's Build and Learn Inc., worked in unison to build an access ramp for Ret. Command Sgt. Major William 'Skip' Bottoms, who was diagnosed with ALS two years earlier.

Together, the two — along with the help of a group of supporters — were able to give the veteran an opportunity to stay independent and mobile for years to come, despite being bound to a wheelchair.

That September, Bottoms was just one of the more than 300 veterans served by Patterson and the Maury County Veterans Services assist each month.

"Maury County is a very generous community," Patterson told The Daily Herald.

He said says veterans travel from Kentucky and West Tennessee to receive support from the organization, which already serves about 7,000 veterans living in southern Middle Tennessee.

"James Patterson was a veteran's veteran," said Calvin Cheek, his predecessor and the man who recommended him for the position. "There never was and there never will be a stronger advocate for veterans."

Each day, Patterson would go above and beyond the duties of his part-time position, going door-to-door personally visiting the county's retired servicemen and women. Either to help with filing out a mountain of government paperwork or dropping off a tank of gas, it was Patterson who was there to do it.

A man dedicated to his responsibilities, even with doctor's concerns for the health of his heart, Patterson would not slow down.

"He did not know how to say 'no'," Cheek said during the service. "He would help anyone who needed it."

At a time when proud veterans, especially those who served in the Vietnam War, did not seek assistance, it was Patterson who went to them, Cheek said.

"He brought them in," Cheek said.

A native of Maury County, Patterson graduated from Hay Long High School in 1964 and served honorably in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War after being drafted in 1965.

For his service, he was presented with the National Defense Award medal and the Republic of Vietnam Service Award.

On February 16, 1966, he married his high school sweetheart Linda Sue Bar Patterson and together the two shared 53 years of marriage and three children.

Named Tennessee Department Legionnaire of the Year in 2014, Patterson's legacy is deeply entwined with the American Legion serving as Legion Commander of the Herbert Griffin American Legion Post 19 in Columbia.

"Many words can be said and many sentences could be written about James Patterson," Chaplain Ray Dye said. "Above all others he was a child of God. He was a good and faithful servant. We gather this morning, and we are gathering our memories. Treasure these memories. We share these memories and we praise him."

The chaplain said he and Patterson traveled across the state with the American Legion working to improve the lives of Tennessee's servicemen and women.

"Lord we thank you for the time we have spent with James Thomas Patterson," Dye said in prayer. "He is gone. He can now rest. He can rest a peaceful rest. We hate to lose our loved ones, but it was time. It was God's time for James to come home."

Songs of loyalty, dedication and appreciation filled the stained-glass hall, packed with friends family, loved ones and Veterans that Patterson spent 14 years serving.

Maury County Fire and Rescue Chief Ty Cobb was the last to share the memory of a longtime friend.

Cobb said he was a 26-year-old commissioner when he voted for Patterson to serve as Maury County's Veterans Services Director.

"It was the best vote I made as a county commissioner," Cobb said, a former state representative. "Some might say it was the only good vote I made as a commissioner."

As Columbia Fire and Rescue celebrated its 150 years of protecting the city in September, the department named its first bench at the newly unveiled Firefighters Park in honor of Patterson.

"I believe an important part of living a good life is to surround yourself with the people who do so," Cobb said. "He was a true American patriot. He loved his family, God and the veterans. Let us not forget to remember the life and service of James Patterson. Let people see in us those qualities they saw in James Patterson. Let us be patriots and let us serve every day."

©2019 The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.)
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